This past week another well-known son of Guyana was in the news with the announcement that Albouystown native Henry Muttoo has been awarded the MBE on the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in the Cayman Islands. Certainly better known outside his homeland for his various cultural contributions, Henry came to prominence in Guyana in the 1970s with the comedy combination known as “All Ah We” made up of Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews and Henry. A ground-breaking group for their reliance on dialect use in their shows, they were popular here and in the region for their fresh display of indigenous culture.
Henry went on to study theatre arts abroad, graduating from the Croydon School in London, England, and later worked as a teacher at the School of Drama in Jamaica, but it was in the Cayman Islands that his talents flowered with his appointment as Artistic Director of that country’s Cayman National Cultural Foundation in the mid-1980s. Working in tandem with his wife Marcia (Theatre Administrator), Henry initiated programmes for the country’s US$5million Harquail Theatre, which had been in decline, and developed arts outreach programmes for the country’s districts and for young students. He also began generating local plays using his set-design and director skills.
I was involved in one of those early theatre projects when I began writing an annual comedy show, laced with original music, called “Rundown” (the name coming from the Cayman version of metagee) which was a comedic satirical mix based on Caymanian events, personalities and happenings. Henry was the set-designer and director for all the shows playing a major role in the success of “Rundown” which I wrote for 20 years and which still continues under Henry’s hand with other writers. His patience with fledgling performers was remarkable. At times when I was ready to walk out when actors were late for rehearsal, or had not learned their lines, Henry, who was prone to let fly, found the restraint to press on when I was inclined to quit.
Henry’s contributions to Caymanian culture, now officially recognised by the MBE award, were far-flung. He initiated theatre classes at the Harquail, including the training of lighting technicians (there were none in Cayman) and was able to achieve the refurbishment of the Harquail Theatre, as well as its repair following the disastrous Hurricane Ivan in 2004 when the building was flooded with 4feet of sea water and had to be gutted and rebuilt.
In the wider community, Henry was the first to recognize the value of the work of the now well-known intuitive painter Gladwyn “Lassie” Bush. Miss Lassie, who had begun painting in her sixties, and not able to afford canvas originally, had used her home instead. Her paintings covered the walls and every window of her house; she painted on the floor and even appliances, reproducing her symbols of Christian art wherever she could find a space. From this unusual display, and from her own volatile temperament, Miss Lassie was generally seen as an eccentric (some said “mad”) woman, but Henry’s was a lone voice praising the art and gradually the CNCF Board took up the challenge to recognize Miss Lassie’s work, and, with her death in 2003, to preserve her home as a memorial. This work, now nearing completion, owes to Henry Muttoo’s determination and commitment. Miss Lassie’s later paintings on canvas are now known around the world, and there is a permanent exhibition of her work in the prestigious Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore USA.
Henry also created a storytelling event in Cayman, known as “GimmiStory” which has become an annual feature on the country’s entertainment calendar, drawing performers from the region and around the world. Now promoted by Cayman’s Ministry of Tourism, it is mounted in informal open-air settings (yards; school grounds; beachfronts). It runs for two weeks (I’ve performed in it several times) and it is known for its relaxed “under-the-trees” ambience.
Henry’s success is a combination of a genuine creative talent, nurtured by professional training, and a determination to persevere that I suspect owes much to his beginnings in those hard times in Albouystown. It is the quality that I see time and again in Guyanese, who have come through the crucible that Guyana can be and have been tempered in that process to be able to deal with circumstances, to improvise, to stay with the task, and to press on when others are quitting. Those qualities of resolve, determination, invention and patience live very strongly in Henry and, ultimately, as much as his creative talent is being recognized, those other aspects of the man are very much in play. One has to concede however that Henry, like so many creators, has (how shall I put this delicately?) his mercurial side, but his wife Marcia’s influences have served over the years to calm that turbulence.
Some years ago I wrote a song called “All O’ We” making the point that the achievements of Caribbean artists or athletes, while cause for their personal celebration, is actually a celebration for all regional people. Today, I add another verse:
So when Henry Muttoo, deep in theatre,
and the Queen, quite in England, praising the banna
it isn’t just Henry getting that honour
it is we, all o’ we, all o’ we.