The major comedy show of the year

Arts on Sunday

We have on previous occasions commented on the theatre of comedy as a tradition in the Caribbean, its changing trends and the way it has grown to become serious business in the Guyanese theatre.  We can now comment on the significant strides in stand-up comedy as reflected in the now annual series titled Uncensored.

Comic performance has been at the core of the performance traditions in the region, and have remained so since indigenous forms of popular theatre developed on the mainstream formal stage.  From the outset this form of performance has been audience-driven and its development has always kept close to the popular audience.  In the beginning there were the various folk forms which began to extend out of their traditional settings and performance spaces in gradual steps which included the more formal stage arrangement of mainstream theatre.  People began to pay to come into a venue to hear individual stand-up comic performers.  This development was a part of the rise of popular theatre at the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

During that era theatre in the Caribbean was still predominantly colonial and still led by expatriate amateurs and the local middle class elite, but the theatre of the folk and the working class was beginning to encroach upon what was taking place.  Popular plays developed, such as the work of Ernest Cupidon and Archie Lindo in Jamaica and popular humorous plays performed in cinema houses in Trinidad.   But much more dominant than those forms of drama was the way stand-up comedy developed.  It grew into a thriving cultural industry performed in calypso tents, cinema houses and other unconventional venues such as entertainment parks like Eldeweiss Park in Kingston, Jamaica.

20100919artsonsundayIt developed in vaudeville and Christmas Morning concerts and was led by impresarios who produced shows, recruited and hired talent which made the careers of several of the most successful and celebrated personalities in Caribbean theatre.  Very interestingly, Marcus Garvey was a major producer, while the impresarios included The Roaring Lion and other calypsonians and tent owners in Trinidad;  Bill Rogers, Cyril Shaw and Vivian Lee of Guyana; Ernest Cupidon, Eric Coverley and Vere Johns in Jamaica.  Among the talent were Cupidon himself, Ranny Williams, Louise Bennett, Bim and Bam, Charles Hyatt, Sam Chase and Jack Melo, and Habeeb Khan.

Those performers carried a very strong tradition in vaudeville, the culture of the calypso tent, ‘picong’ and audience interaction which made this brand of Caribbean comedy a powerful form and performance tradition.  When this began to die out roughly around 1970, a newer trend developed which included the work of Paul Keens Douglas and Oliver Samuels, as well as Bello and Blacka later on.

As styles and emphases changed, among the most creative and influential was the theatre of Ken Corsbie and Marc Matthews, a similar form was used by Dave Martins in his post-Trade Winds career.  The thing about this, however, is that not many have been able to match what those performers did in order to carry it on as a popular trend.

Oliver Samuels, however, craftily re-introduced some of the old forms he learnt in the Jamaica Pantomime into popular and roots plays.  Others, such as Shabada and the Stages company have followed him with success.
However, the strong traditions died out in Guyana.  For many years there was just the memory and the occasional invocation of the names of Sam Chase and Jack Melo and Habeeb Khan in his prime.  Several attempts at stand-up comedy were weak and hollow.  These included attempts to imitate stand-up comics seen on television from the USA.
But from the evidence of Uncensored 2013 something of value has been re-ignited.  The producers Lyndon ‘Jumbie’ Jones and Maria Benschop have developed an annual show that solidifies the recent gains of Guyanese comedy.  It is now the most successful and popular production of its kind.  There are several credits in its favour.  It developed out of previous unimpressive comic productions and capitalised on the popular demand for comedy.  Maria Benschop in particular, seems to have taken a progressive approach and has considerably improved upon her earlier attempts.  She has now created with Lyndon Jones what is a sound professional production.  But its professional quality is owed to a few other factors.
The Link Show has been an extremely influential model that inspired a string of imitators.  Among these were shows which were not interested in satire, but in laughter with mass popular appeal.  While not being necessarily of good quality, one or two of them produced worthy comic performers.  Uncensored is a different type of show which is not modelled on the Link.   Its focus is stand-up comedy, and it is the best of this type seen in Guyana in the contemporary era.

It owes a debt to another factor out of which a few of the other leading comedians emerged.  When the Upscale Restaurant under Osafa George started ‘Poetry Night’ and ‘Comedy Night’ it created another very important contributing factor.  Many would-be comedians tried out their wings there and a few took flight.  Notably, Jones, Odessa Primus, Miranda Austin and Kirk ‘Chow Pow’ Jardine in addition to many others had their beginnings at Upscale.  Henry Rodney and yet others, who had already been comedians before, honed their skills there.

It is easy to say that the Upscale made a contribution.  So did the development of Uncensored.  The show allows the country’s leading comedians what has now become their major appearance each year.  What is more, the show has demanded high level performance before a very exacting audience.  The most accomplished local stand-up comedians, Jones and Rodney, are now at the top of the game.  What is more they have advanced the craft and are now exhibiting some of the elements of the previous famous tradition which deepen the art.  Jones is a bit long-winded, but the audience does not seem to mind.  He is able to command direct harmony with them, bringing them into the performance in the traditional fashion of a complete circuit.  His ability to handle ‘talk back,’ repartee and heckling are sharp.  He is a master of picong, which is another skill that was of prime importance in the old tradition.

Rodney is not the best of script writers, but he too commands the audience and has developed confidence and rapport with them.  This audience/performer circuit is probably the most important dynamic in Caribbean stand-up comedy because of an indigenous culture in which they become inseparable or indistinguishable in many acts.  That is also the case because of a contemporary popular culture that shapes entertainment and has returned to the old practice of talking back to the actor.

Apart from the leaders in the field, Uncensored runs a competition and allows the most promising competitors as well as newcomers a major public appearance.  Of them all, the most accomplished female in the field is Leza Singh whose persona is Radika, a rustic, naïve Indian country girl, whose subtly superior wisdom is ironic.  Through this assumed character the comedienne is able to comment on aspects of contemporary society.
Also among the rising comediennes are Miranda Austin and Odessa Primus.  While Austin seems very adept at ad lib and spontaneous wit, Primus goes off the track a bit.  Her style and choice of material is different because of their appeal to the cerebral, which increases her depth, but occasionally pitches her above the audience’s head.  She sometimes loses out because some punch-lines require intellectual engagement rather than ready, raucous humour.

An important point is that this group of recent developers are not slight, but seem to have studied the craft a bit to come up with performance strategies and satirical techniques.  The advantages of this kind of study and the need for an apprenticeship were demonstrated in the case of one of the contestants in the competition, Colleen Humphrey, who is quite a good actress.  But in front of a demanding audience she would have found that more than acting prowess is required in stand-up comedy, and put her at a disadvantage because she is yet to go through that internship.  .

Another interesting feature of the present scene in comedy, is its development as a cultural industry.  Kwasi Edmondson, for example, is one of the notable performers who is not only an experienced actor, but also a writer.  Significantly, he has scripted short performance pieces (or skits) such as ‘Going Downtown,’ which are available for other performers to use.
Uncensored has therefore contributed significantly to the emergence and development of a number of comedians, prominent among them being Kerwin ‘Sir’ Mars and ‘Chubby.’   Even beginners or amateur humorists were given an opportunity in the show in 2013 where unknown artistes and members of the audience were called on stage.  This worked very well mostly because of the hilarious and satirical performance of an unknown and anonymous performer who apparently did not wish his identity to be revealed.  Yet his routine was very well thought out, excellently presented and overwhelmingly appreciated by the audience.

This production has therefore risen to be the major comedy show of the year.  It has an achievement of popularity and professionalism.  It has made a substantial contribution to the development of comedians and stand-up comedy in Guyana.  It has rediscovered many aspects of the old and noble tradition of comic performance in Guyana, rekindling elements of the art that had faded.  It has roused Guyanese comic routines out of effete mediocrity.

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