This great demand has been consistently demonstrated over the past three or four years with repeated tours by Oliver Samuels and most recently with Bashment Granny Part II. It was re-emphasized in Carifesta X where the overwhelming popularity of River Bottom was once again obvious, and there was equally overwhelming demand for Patrick Brown’s Love Games. Of only secondary interest is that one of the successes of that Carifesta in Guyana was the return of major Caribbean plays to the festival. The main significance here is the demand in Guyana for a particular type of entertainment.
Jamaican theatre earned a reputation in the rest of the region because it has demonstrated the capacity to produce excellent work, but the current reputation is based on the contemporary production of popular plays. The drama developed by Derek Walcott in Trinidad and Trevor Rhone’s Jamaican drama have a reputation for excellence that is well known, but the Rhone work that will command the fondest memories in Guyana is Smile Orange, which, of all the Rhone dramas, makes the most extensive use of unbridled humour. That is because the reputation that is of relevance here is attached to a particular type of play typified by Oliver and Bashment Granny.
The great reputation is based on the humour, the comic performance and the high entertainment value. Those are demanded by the audience in Guyana and they are supplied generously in Jamaican popular theatre. The success of Samuels as a comedian ensured a demand for River Bottom, which was then able to recommend itself. This helped to draw the crowds to Love Games, about which the Guyanese audience had no prior knowledge before it came to Carifesta. The demand for Bashment Granny II was assured by its own reputation and the popularity of its predecessors.
Bashment Granny II is characteristic of the popular play of greatest currency, with a number of comic elements now dominant on the contemporary Jamaican stage. It is first of all a farce, with an abundance of slapstick, deliberately done with gross exaggerations. The cast is well trained for this kind of delivery in the effective styles of farce and camp now widely employed in Jamaica, because of the demand that it has created in all parts of the country. The visiting performers that play in Guyana are touring companies at home where these plays have a following in urban and rural venues. These elements of farce are dominant and influential, having infiltrated other forms of theatre including the famous Jamaica Pantomime musical.
Comic situations are set up and played out in that manner with several hilarious punch-lines.
But the play has a number of more subtle elements since what is so comically played out is only the façade of a plot with hidden dimensions revealed only at the end. Other techniques are used which even have a touch of sophistication. The entry of a particular mysterious character onto the stage is always accompanied by the playing of the Django theme borrowed from the famous western movie. This gives the play elements of the parody since it turns out to be a tense situation in the context of crime and gunmen. There is a battle between dangerous gangster elements represented by the mysterious ‘Django’ character and Mr Bashment and his ally, who poses as a comical, corrupt policeman with little courage but who might be a more serious detective working undercover.
During a performance in Guyana, Bashment Granny II was interrupted by a black-out at the Cultural Centre. But the actors on stage at the time were quite unaffected and continued the performance in the darkness with improvisations. Relevant action and dialogue were made up on the spot with hardly a break in transmission until the power supply returned. This was possible because of another feature of Jamaican comic performance. The actors are well versed in ad lib, impromtu/extempore dialogue developed from direct interaction with the audience. They are accustomed to improvisation and bantering with an audience which talks back to them.
Even without the unplanned blackout they would have been directly engaging the audience, since there were instances when a character would veer off from the script to address them. This is a popular feature of the theatre in which actors take on the audience in direct responses to odd remarks thrown at them. However, even without that they would move into a brief interlude in which they would pick on random members of the audience and pretend to be revealing some scandalous secret about them.
This has been honed to a fine art by Oliver, and has been taken up by others to become a hilarious popular attraction. It is actually a new practice brought back from a very old performance tradition in which there was routine interaction between performers and audience. In recognition of the delight that contemporary audiences find in it, it has been revived from the past traditional performance and ritual when there was little separation, and audience and performer were one. It was done in Bashment Granny and it was also a feature of River Bottom and Love Games.
It is tempting to dismiss many of these comic plays entirely because they are beset by a sometimes exhausting preponderance of slapstick. But what emerges here are reasons why it is difficult to do that. There was a formula in many of the so-called ‘dancehall’ plays of the 1990s whose unmitigated focus was sexuality, but which were sometimes rescued by a transforming twist at the end.
Oliver’s River Bottom, which owes great debts to the pantomime in which Oliver once starred, is known for its farce, but has a number of redeeming features. Its subtler, more sophisticated characteristics are that it is a true comedy in the classical sense and is really the confessions of a fraudulent country pastor. He takes the audience through a story of his past sins of lechery and greed, through the catharsis of his repentance and change to the play’s end, when all ends in happy reform and redemption.
Love Games is popular primarily because of its humour and thrills in the treatment of sexual intrigues. Yet not only do its satirical intentions have merit, but it is a useful study of the revival of the old traditions of audience engagement. Bashment Granny touches the lowest level of slapstick and crass laughter, which is the main reason for its immense popularity in Guyana. Yet it is a good example of the going trends in popular theatre and in addition, is a rewarding subject for the study of the form with its exhibition of what used to be strong traditions and the way they have evolved on the contemporary Caribbean stage.