A dramatic performance called Choo Kong and Pennie Tell It Like It Is presented by Raymond Choo Kong Productions of Trinidad and Tobago, which is currently on stage in Port of Spain, draws attention to a number of issues in Caribbean theatre.
The production is a stimulus for a further look into the long and still pertinent debate over serious theatre as against popular performance and farce. The term ‘legitimate theatre’ has been used in Trinidad to describe activity that does not include Choo Kong or ‘Best Village,’ and even where terms are not used, there is a notion in the academy that certain productions are not serious and not worth seeing.
It is a reminder of the existence of the satirical theatrical tradition in the region. Without any doubt it is an expression of its continuance, but the production also provides a stimulus for an assessment of the state of this satirical theatre – whether it is still strong or whether only a few vestiges remain, or whether these performances do justice to it.
Tell It Like It Is deliberately sets out to raise hell about several questions in Trinidad life and politics, but the performance itself raises unintentional questions about how seriously the Trinidadian populace take their own traditions that do not belong to the academy or the middle class.
The issues and problems surrounding popular theatre in the Caribbean go back a long time and started in Jamaica a few decades ago. One of the most respected ladies in Jamaican theatre, author of several pantomimes, Barbara Gloudon, published an outburst against the rise of a certain brand of popular plays produced by a radio morning show host Ed Wallace in the early 1980s. It specialised in what she called “quick-stick” basic gimmicks and slapstick, sacrificing everything for laughs. It was bad theatre with a commercial motivation. Wallace, however, was only speeding up a move already in motion, which was the rise of popular theatre, and he was immediately followed by others such as Ralph Holness, by ‘dancehall’ theatre and ‘roots theatre.’ Those extended to other popular forms across the Caribbean.
They met resistance. Much of this was in response to the content of the ‘dance hall’ variety, for example, which was highly sexual in nature and, as one of its most sympathetic critics, Carolyn Cooper put it, was “flirting with pornography.” While these brands of theatre became increasingly popular, they did not win much critical acclaim and were blamed for so disorienting the audience that it became difficult for the more serious efforts at higher, more experimental and more intellectually engaging forms of plays to survive.
In Trinidad there is a notion that the types of theatre seen in the ‘Best Village’ performances and other grassroots types belonged outside of the mainstream and were not serious theatre. Members of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop have classified the works of Derek Walcott and others of that type as “the legitimate theatre.” Other members of the academy would appreciate what they see as the artistic, the intellectually engaging and the experimental, but exclude the popular plays from those worthy of critical study and would not recommend them as works to be seen.
Raymond Choo Kong is among those in the popular, ‘non-serious’ category. His productions have a reputation for humour and light, hilarious and sensational entertainment, including the risqué. In his long history he has produced and directed a range of comedies and farces at a variety of venues, including a converted theatre auditorium in the Tranquility area of Port of Spain, the Central Bank Auditorium and now at the CLR James Auditorium in Valsayn. He has diverted a bit, including a production of a classical Chinese drama Lady Precious Stream done during Carifesta 1995
While the critics of popular drama complain that the variety does little for the development of the mind and makes statements of little value, Choo Kong may argue that he does satire. His productions have included Exposed and We Like It So and as said above, he is now engaged in Choo Kong and Penny Tell It Like It Is. His partner in this current satirical work is Penelope Spencer, with a cast that also includes Mark Nottingham and Abeo Jackson. Furthermore, wholesale dismissal of the popular theatre is more than a bit hasty. One can find in it elements of a long, sound and important tradition in the Caribbean with factors that are crucial on the contemporary stage.
One of these factors is that very satirical tradition. There has been some decline in what used to be a more frequent annual round of year-end revues in the Caribbean theatre, especially in Jamaica. The Jamaica Playhouse led by Reggie Carter produced quite a series of those and the two most successful in that country have been Eight O’ Clock Jamaica Time and Rahtid ! It is to that tradition that The Brink series by Frank Pilgrim and The Theatre Guild in Guyana belonged. Surviving annual productions of that type are Guyana’s Link Show and Barbados’ Laff It Off. Now Choo Kong’s most recent work shows that the genre still lives, although the difference is that those two in Guyana and Barbados are annual revues, while Choo Kong and Penelope Spencer happened to join forces for this show.
They depend on laughter and have given the performance concentrated popular appeal, which is significant because long before the year-end annual revues it was the Caribbean popular theatre that was the guardian of the noble satirical tradition. It was carried on in vaudeville, in the shows held in cinema houses and other activities on stage. The satirical tradition in Trinidad is also a deep component of the folk and popular culture. It is practised in the daily lifestyle through the tradition of picong, and it is one of the most important elements of the art of the calypso. So that the drama of the academy, of “the legitimate theatre” and the middle class have been tutored in the art and science of satire by the folk, the grassroots and the popular.
Like Barbados’ Laff It Off, this Trinidadian satirical theatre has a heavy focus on local political commentary. Laughing at the Prime Minister is a big hit in any country, and particularly at this time in Trinidad with the newly installed Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persaud Bissessar, her conflicts within her own party and the great prospects for comic exploration presented by the spirited challenge she is building up against Prime Minister Manning. These prospects are enlarged by the likelihood of general elections soon. Choo Kong and Penny have maximised the golden opportunities. They have done this in different ways in different structures of take-off and lampoon.
Their most successful act in this production focused on these issues in an interesting, workable scenario with scope for endless laughs. In Conversations with a Seerwoman the Prime Minister goes to consult a ‘seer’ woman, a clairvoyant or an obeah woman, to seek guidance, advice and assistance in his political strategies, what he can do to have influence over the future, and how to deal with his enemies and opponents, among other weighty matters of state. He visits her in her sacred chambers with, of course, dialogue and antics that evoked roars of laughter.
One of the very interesting elements of this piece is its use of cultural forms. The seerwoman performs her consultations in sacred space and is a high priestess of the Shouter Baptists. The performers entered the stage in an impressive procession performing a dance of possession with music, symbolism and rituals associated with the religion, including the prominent ringing of the bell. It is within that context that she achieves possession and begins her performance as a medium receiving spirits in order to advise the politician.
What is significant about this is that Choo Kong and Pennie opened their show two days after the public holiday in Trinidad and Tobago celebrating the re-establishment of rights to practise their religion struggled for and eventually won by the Shouters. It was a struggle that began under colonial rule when their bell-ringing and possession were banned by the authorities, as were a number of other ‘frightful and barbaric’ African traditions. The granting of a public holiday was also a triumph for the Shouter Baptists who continued to struggle for respect, acceptance and recognition, first from the colonialists and then from their own fellow citizens in an independent Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
The Tell It Like It Is performance, however, treated the religion rather lightly as a good source of humour. The camping up and farce interspersed into the possession ritual dance shows that this cultural form was used because of the perception of it in the minds and eyes of the audience who, despite the winning of freedoms and the public holiday, do not take the Shouters seriously. Many Trinidadians still see the Baptists as a joke or as people afflicted with a little madness.
The popular theatre was asserting a sense of its worth against middle class opinion that disregards forms of popular theatre by performing satire and making some pertinent political and social commentary. In another dramatic monologue Choo Kong as a Chinese talks back to Trinidadian society about its disrespect and somewhat racist treatment of the Chinese as an ethnic minority in that country. He marched on stage as an angry victim and took the thoroughly entertained audience through a hilarious outburst against this scant treatment and disregard. Yet at the same time and on the same stage the popular theatre is setting up the Baptists as a laughable bunch led by a priestess who is most likely a fraud unable to see further than the money in the hands of those seeking her services.
In colonial times in the pre-independence Caribbean the folk traditions were down-pressed by a people who were suspicious of them. At the same time the folk traditions developed forms in which they lampooned the colonial class in theatrical forms that developed to strengthen the region’s forms of satire. It is therefore ironic that today not only do folk forms and traditions not have the respect of their own people, but the popular theatre that is held in suspicion by the middle class audience turns its satire and irony against those same folk traditions.