The Caribbean performance traditions have always included very strong forms of comedy. These have included indigenous forms, the influences of the popular culture, imported styles and various types of stage performance. For a few decades in Guyana these fell away to be taken over by dilution, imported models and American television. But it is to be noted that more recently a level of professionalism seems to have returned, and along with it, some vestiges of the old traditions.
Stand-up comedy is now one of the leading forms of entertainment on stage in Guyana and the comedians have generally grown in strength and professionalism. These signs were very clear in the most recent productions of Uncensored presented by Lyndon Jones and Maria Benschop. The shows have been exceedingly popular and have definitely improved in proficiency.
Stand-up comedy has been a part of Caribbean performance for more than a century, and in turn, the presentation of it has been enriched by a number of indigenous traditions. It was a part of the calypso tent, and the tradition has been that the MC would be an effective stand-up comedian. Comic performances were prominent during the glorious age of Vaudeville shows in British Guiana. The legendary Bill Rogers as well as The Roaring Lion of Trinidad were known to have produced such shows in both Trinidad and British Guiana. These forms flourished in Jamaica and many might be surprised to learn that Marcus Garvey was one of the promoters. Vaudeville was part of his programme in Eldeweiss Park in Kingston where his cultural movement produced a range of entertainment from epic theatre to comedy.
It was within these productions that the greatest comedian in Jamaica’s history, Ranny Williams, emerged. This comic tradition continued through other producers, impresarios and great performers including Eric Coverley, Ernest Cupidon, Louise Bennett, Maude Fuller, Charles Hyatt, Bim and Bam. The best known names on the Guyanese stage around the same time were Sam Chase and Jack Mello. The most popular venues for these performances were in cinema houses, and a very long-lasting series in Jamaica was the Christmas Morning Concerts produced by Vere Johns.
In more ‘modern’ times there were shifts in the nature of performance and newer types of comedians such as Paul Keens Douglas, Oliver Samuels, Bello and Blacka. The shifts gave way to more unique developments in the performance traditions in Guyana, as forms were shaped by sophisticated theatre personalities such as Ken Corsbie and Dave Martins.
But for several years in Guyana deep traditions took flight and comic performers were shallow and unprofessional. At the same time the American TV stand-up comic was the popular influence and there was little or no sign of local traditions. For a very long time the only man left standing was Habeeb Khan, who had quality and a retention of some of the old tradition.
As comedy shows grew in popularity many began trying out their stand-up routines at the Upscale Restaurant and around the country. As more and more of these shows were produced some of the experienced stand-up comics grew in competence and command of stage and audience. At the same time it seems quite a bit was gained from the experience of production and the massive audience response, because the most recent editions of Uncensored were quite successful, even if over-lengthy.
Apart from Habeeb Khan from the old school, the man who is perhaps Guyana’s most experienced in the newer stand-up comedy form, Henry Rodney, actually exhibits considerable development on stage. Rodney may now be regarded as a fully accomplished comedian at the top of the game and fortified by some of the techniques and influence of old traditions.
Another leading personality emerged much more recently and has rapidly ascended to the pinnacle of the profession. Lyndon (Jumbie) Jones first tried out his wings at the Upscale and developed steadily as an MC, as a stand-up comedian and as a producer. Jones is a good actor and showed his competence in quite a subtle role in the drama Fences, to convince that he can take that line seriously. But what is most relevant here is that Jones is now performing within the old and noble tradition.
In the old traditional tent it was almost compulsory that the MC should be able to hold his own not only as a comic, but as a master of picong. Picong itself is one of the traditional forms that has now reappeared in contemporary performance. The role of the MC is not to make announcements, but he is in fact, another comedy performer, who is very sharp in the business of picong. Additionally, the audience has always been a key factor in Caribbean performance, where audiences have not been passive receivers of performance from the stage, but have created a circuit. They talk back to performers, heckle and exchange banter, so that audiences perform and challenge MC’s and comedians to be able to respond to them with effective wit.
The contemporary performers in Guyana’s stand-up comedy today have learnt this and have been pushed to make it a part of their routine and of their proficiency. They now, more than previously, realize that they need this kind of artillery to survive on stage. They now know that on the contemporary stage, comedy is serious business.
Notable among the newer performers is the rise of a number of comediennes. The best of them is Leza Singh. She exemplifies the techniques that this new group has come to realise are important; that this performance demands a bit more than the simple stand-and-deliver of jokes. There has to be a dramatic package. Ms Singh has created an interesting dramatic persona and is a good enough actress to perform a full comic routine fully in character. What is more, most of her tales seem to be original and actually arise out of the characterization.
Most of the others follow the same constructive efforts, such as Amanda Austin who is a skilled entertainer but not original, having taken most of her repertoire off the net. Odessa Primus has a flair for the cerebral and depends a great deal on subtle wit which she mixes with the regular direct play to the audience. Two others in this group are Kwasi Edmonson and Sir Mars. They too, have built dramatic personae through whom to develop their stories.
They are ready to take on the audience and have put in the work to understand the comedy form and make their routine more interesting for them. This has come quite an encouraging way from a mere string of jokes and reflects the fact that they see their profession as worthy of study. They are progressing quite well in the serious business of comedy.