I call him “Kraws” but you know him as Ken Corsbie, Guyana’s premier storyteller/comedian who celebrated his 80th birthday recently, and I’m touched that so many of you got in touch with him on that occasion.
Coinciding with the milestone, Kraws and I had been gaffing and reminiscing a lot, and at one point he referred to his development into a comical performer as a process. In his words: “That kind of realization grows slowly and insidiously. It creeps up on you. I have a vague memory that I was often referred to as ‘the life of the party’ the party wit, but my entry into comedy came from doing plays – Theatre Guild, and later outside – and hearing audience reactions and getting into the craft. You’re listening to and seeing other comedians, storytellers, actors, and both consciously and unconsciously, you pick up bits and pieces; without knowing it, you are forming a style. In those early years in Theatre Guild, around smart people, exposed to literature and ideas, I probably began the journey where I came to see that ‘normal’ and ‘we culture’ were essentially bizarre, which was the influence on Dem Two and All O’ We; what seems holy or irrefutable becomes, as Bajans would say, ‘bare foolishness’ and I see that bizzardry even more as I age.”
An initial career key for Ken was seeing a Theatre Guild one-man show in the early 70’s, featuring a Trinidadian actor Slade Hopkinson. Ken noticed that Slade’s Caribbean pieces drew the strongest reaction. It propelled him to do a similar thing, and before long he took the leap in 1973 with a one-man show – ground-breaking at the time – He Wan, featuring local banter. A year later, he added Marc Matthews to the mix in Dem Two, and by 1975 (not 1969 as I thought) it was Ken, Marc and Henry Muttoo in All O’ We packing out the TG playhouse.
One of the career highlights Ken looks back on is a Dem Two performance at the venerable Barn Theatre in Jamaica in the late 1970s that drew packed audiences and led to theatre critic Dennis Scott lauding the performance as one with regional appeal and as something “only the Guyanese could pull off”.
The roughest audience for Ken came in the 1990s in the Caribbean Comedy Festival in Trinidad where, with the show running late, and a restless crowd of 5,000, Ken, doing solo standup, remembers: “I’m a bit bow-legged, and the moment I hit the stage I was greeted by a rambunctious Trini shouting at the top of his lungs, ‘Padna, de man foot like two goal post.’ That was the end of me. I could never recover from that uproar.”
In the same country, different venue, Ken experienced a golden moment: “It’s All O’ We. Henry, Marc and I are on stage at the almost mythological Little Carib Theatre in Port-of-Spain – full house, things great. Marc’s an intuitive and instinctive performer, rehearsals bore him, and he can quite easily insert, delete, alter lines and meanings with an almost improvisational suddenness In the middle of an Eddie Braithwaite poem on cricket, out of nowhere, Marc stops suddenly and says, ‘Anybody know where the toilet is? I got to pee.’ and walks off, just so. Toilet break over, Marc returns, but we’ve lost the thread and the bit is in shambles. The audience seemed to think it was scripted; the laughter just went on and on. We got a standing ovation at the end of the show – this from an entirely Trinidadian audience.”
Ken also recalls another gem from Marc at a show in Guyana. “We’re at the Talk of the Town, Pancho Carew’s nightclub on Water Street. Late night, after 11, we are live on GBS. Marc is performing Johnny Agard’s ‘Coconut Vendor’ story which has some very strong language and images at the end. I’m quaking, hoping that Marc will tone it down. Of course, he doesn’t. It all comes out as Johnny wrote it; on the air; live. End of show. End of broadcast. Lionel Luckhoo later wrote in the newspaper that we committed blasphemy, and he could sue us. Wordsworth McAndrew, the ultimate culturist responded that he would be a defence witness to show that what Marc said is merely ‘we culture’. The repercussions lasted for weeks.”
In the course of one gaff I asked Ken what comedians or storytellers he admires today, and why. He said, “So many. Paul Keens-Douglas is a universal Caribbean comedian/storyteller/oral poet. His work, like Louise Bennett’s, like your calypsos, transcend place. Errol Fabien – brilliant style and technique, full of Trini expressiveness and color. Sprangalang: his comedy is of everyday living, although I’ve seen this style bomb because he does not tell ‘wutless’ jokes, as is now a growing tendency. So much so that my humour is too mild and outdated for Caribbean audiences at comedy festivals. I haven’t been invited to a festival for the past five years. Audiences these days seem to want open vulgarity; that’s not me.”
Ken’s career milestones are many: the cutting edge emergence of local humour in legitimate theatre on He Wan – truly Ken, as we say in Guyana, he one and God; his role as liaison for the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, hosting and co-writing the ground-breaking “Caribbean Eye” television series produced by the gifted Christopher Laird of Banyan Studios in Trinidad; leaving Guyana to live in Barbados and run the Theatre Information Exchange (TIE) – an association of Caribbean dramatists.
Along the way he has rubbed shoulders with the best. He recalls: “Wilbert Holder, a Guyanese actor, for power and bravado – Wilbert. He would know all his lines, and all the lines of everybody else in the play – precision. Henry Muttoo: he came from Albouystown, and Henry would reach into that culture for things. One time, at Little Carib he did a poem, ‘Letter to England’, as read by an Indian guy. It was riveting. When he finished, three seconds of dead silence, and then standing ovation. And there’s Michael Gilkes, an intelligent, educated performer – he’s produced some stunning work.”
Ken is also high in praise of Christopher Laird who operates the Gayelle Television Station in Trinidad and worked with Ken in the Caribbean Eye television series. “Chris is my brother. Courageous, inventive. Strongly Trinidadian, but at the same time strongly Caribbean. A remarkable man.” And on our local theatre scene he singles out director Ron Robinson for “being so quick-minded, affable, inclusive” and producer Gem Madhoo as “this wonderful multi-tasker, always thorough – a person you can trust.”
Ken looks back on his theatrical birthplace, the Theatre Guild Playhouse, and stresses that the answers for the theatre’s existence have to come from within, not from the diaspora. “The TG was a dream come true, and lately heroically reconstructed, but it’s now facing the daunting task of recreating a new identity in today’s very different culture. Utility costs are horrendous. It’s a tough one.”
On our Cultural Centre, he says, “I think Guyana missed an opportunity to design an artistically exciting theatre that would have been unique in the Caribbean – something with more flexibility for producers and directors; an apron stage or a horseshoe or even a theatre-in-the-round would have been exhilarating to work in.”
Ken’s intensity hasn’t dimmed with the years. He gets furious over the garbage in Georgetown, and the high-beam headlights on the after dark roads in Barbados and Trinidad; he wishes Americans would talk less about somone’s race and more about their culture. I mention Caribbean names to him, and the responses come back.
“Marc Matthews – an instinctive ferocious performer, body language supreme. Star quality, commanding audience attention.”
“Henry Muttoo: Friendship, loyalty and generosity to the nth degree. Creative, thinker, totally trustworthy and the complete dramatist.”
“Christopher Laird: Courageous, inclusive, intensely Trinidadian and at the same time intensely Caribbean. Along with Henry and Marc, friend for life.”
A gaff with Kraws these days almost always includes a reference to his recent foray into learning to play the ukulele.
“Both the wife and I are learning. After three months, I know five chords and can play 5 songs. I don’t know how the hell musicians remember all dem chords. But ah hangin’ in. So it go.”
The people in Cayman use that phrase a lot – so it go. It epitomizes a benign, almost affable view of life, and it’s been a catch phrase of Ken’s for years. It defines his humour. It fits with the kind of person he is. So he definitely go.