The theatre of satire in the Caribbean has a very strong history and tradition dating back to the period of slavery. Its roots may be found in the European carnival led by the French Creoles in Trinidad, the masked balls and masques, and the negres jardin (‘field negroes’ or ‘field slaves’ in loose translation) – a masque in which the Europeans dressed up and imitated the enslaved Africans. These roots also include the response of the enslaved, who in turn parodied the plantocracy with their own versions of the negre jardin and other pieces of theatre in which they lampooned their ‘masters.’ From these beginnings of carnival in Trinidad to similar acts of lampoon, take-off, imitation and ridicule in Jamaica, the enslaved population engaged in satirical theatre, and this grew in a direct line of development to contemporary theatre in the Caribbean.
The roots also include the deep-rooted tradition of satire in various African cultures brought over in the Middle Passage, as well as in resistance to slavery onthis side of the Atlantic. The enslaved were accustomed to satirical performance and it is not difficult to understand how they integrated it into strategies for resistance to slavery such as another act in the origins of carnival, the kamboulay (French Creole Patois for cannes brulees – ‘burning canes’), which started out as mimicry but was equally lampoon/take-off and theatre of resistance.
In more recent times satire was a common feature in popular entertainment such as in the vaudeville shows with English music hall and local characteristics. Within this vaudeville tradition were the Christmas Morning concerts in Jamaica and various similar performances in cinema houses. These included comedy teams and stand-up comics whose fare often included double entendre, sexual innuendo and sometimes the risqué or ribald, but which was also loaded with satirical quips and topical references. Many famous Caribbean performers had their beginnings and/or entire careers in these shows, such as Bim and Bam, Ed ‘Bim’ Lewis, Ranny Williams, Louise Bennett, formerly working as ‘Lou and Ranny,’ Paul Keens-Douglas, Bello and Blacka.
In addition, there also developed the Jamaica Pantomime, a form arising out of the English pantomimes and Jamaican folklore, as well as several annual revues in Jamaica, such as 8 o’Clock Jamaica Time and Rhatid!, Bimshire in Barbados and contemporary productions like Laff It Off (Barbados) and the present works of Raymond Choo Kong and Penelope Spencer in Trinidad and Tobago.
Satire is still to be found in several traditional folk performances across the Caribbean. In some of these, and in several performances on stage, it has always been a part of popular entertainment. In this entertainment laughter is a great weapon. It is therefore easy to understand why when many performers take to the stage to perform comedy, a stand-up comic routine, farce or even common jokes, they often say they are performing “satire.” It is true that many of the legendary humourists and stand-up comics of the recent past did include satirical comments and topical references in their routines. But these were strong practitioners who understood the noble tradition. That cannot be said of most of those on stage today, who claim and promise ‘satire’ but deliver mere jokes, often in poor quality performance.
Yet the tradition was as strong in British Guiana as elsewhere. Guianese vaudeville reigned with the likes of Bill Rogers (as musical performer and producer), Vivian Lee and Cyril Shaw/Shah (producers), Sam Chase, Jack Mello and Habeeb Khan. The last three named performed comedy with the traditional satirical/topical content.
More recently a prominent commentator on the manners of the times in Guyana and the Caribbean moved from music to the stage for a very good performance within the tradition, but with his signature style. Dave Martins developed his stage varieties mixing a criticism of manners with satirical comment which contains humour.
Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo-Nascimento’s Link Show was developed out of the Brink from the Theatre Guild and Frank Pilgrim. The Link has grown and is now equal to the best survivors of the satirical theatre in the Caribbean.
However, in most cases in Guyana mere humour is often mistaken for satire and many seem to feel that laughter and satire are synonymous. While satire uses laughter as a weapon, most of the staged comic performances and farces do not use the artistic technique or do not have any of the intentions contained within satirical theatre. A number of shows exist in Guyana which fall many leagues behind The Link Show. These include the Mori Jvon Comedy Jam, Nothing to Laugh About, many stand-up comics and other ‘Laugh’ shows.
The most recent edition of Nothing to Laugh About (No. 4 this is da bomb), produced by Maria Benschop and directed by Lidon Jones, written by Benschop, Jones and others is an appropriate case. It calls itself satire but it is not. It is a good example of the kind of work that may be mistaken for satire just because it presents laughter. This series is extremely popular largely because of its effective publicity and the type of humour that it advertises. It fits in well with the popular entertainment that has become in demand in Guyana. Its main fare is farce; low farce, slapstick and camp. The camp is a particular type that is easy to do and requires little else to send the audience exploding with laughter than to dress a male actor in revealing women’s clothes and send him to parade across the stage. Farce produced by showy transvestite humour and homosexuality has only to appear on the stage and need do nothing else. No clever or witty script is needed, no comment on anything.
That was very much a part of Nothing To Laugh About 4 (subtitled this is da bomb). The most recent production of it was much better in all respects than the first, as there seems to have been some improvement. But that was not hard to achieve since the first attempts at this series were absolute disasters. The scripts were slight and the staging incompetent. In the last production the scripts were still innocuous but some were funny and the quality of the staging and overall production was more palatable. It was a collection of skits, playlets, jokes, rumours and stand-up comedy. It was not satire.
It was over-dominated by Lindon Jones (or is it Linden? Both versions of the name appear in different literature). He was the accredited director, he was the resident stand-up comic, he wrote much of the material including some of the skits in which he played the leading role. To take it further, some of the stories were about him. Whether or not these were fictionalized, he was not only the lead actor, but the main character, so called by name.
Jones is not a bad stand-up comic, neither is he a bad actor, so he brought some of that competence to the production. But it could have been a bit more than a personality cult, or an ego trip. The scripts were mixed in quality and many of the actors have come around to the kind of performance necessary in these shows. Maria Benschop’s Nothing to Laugh About, however, still leaves a great deal of room for upliftment, and despite being better than the failure with which it began its life on stage, is still not good quality.