The Jamaica Pantomime has been weakened somewhat

The pantomime is an important and popular tradition in the Caribbean theatre.  The production for the 2012-13 season, popularly known simply as ‘pantomime’ is Schoolahs by Barbara Gloudon, which has been running since December 26, 2012 at The Little Theatre in Kingston.  It exhibits significant characteristics that reflect current trends in the theatre in the Caribbean and shifts in the pantomime itself that have been taking place during the past five years.  But it also sustains other characteristics of a long-standing and deep-rooted tradition.

Schoolahs is the second pantomime of that name to be scripted by Gloudon and presented in this annual theatre production.  The first in 1989 was a satire on the growing and in many ways worrying trends, personalities and behaviour patterns that had been developing in a sub-culture of teenagers in secondary schools. The word ‘schoolahs’ is Jamaican slang for schoolchildren which was new to the language in the 1980s, a creolised version of ‘schoolers’ and a rather linguistically complete expression that captures and characterises that young generation, their entire social being and idiosyncracies, along with a newly developed social phenomenon that was (is) the country’s school-age population.

The drama saw the humorous side of this social issue, which was normal for pantomime since it is traditionally a popular comedy, but through laughter commented on many aspects of it, particularly the folly of it, since pantomime is a satirical tradition.  Twenty years later, Gloudon returns to the subject to dramatise the new generation of ‘young people’ in the twenty-first century in the secondary school setting.  But this revisit is not as incisive as the first, seems more about the school system, focuses more on the administrators and the adults around the schools than it does on the ‘schoolahs’ themselves, and does more to demonstrate the changes that have taken place in the contemporary theatre than it does to maintain old traditions.

20101128alcreighton'sThe history of the Jamaica Pantomime has already been covered here in Arts on Sunday, but another brief sketch will help to place in context what is observed in this 2012-13 script and production.  Its full title is the Annual LTM Jamaica Pantomime Musical produced by the Pantomime Company at The Little Theatre, Jamaica’s signal playhouse which is itself a tradition.  This current establishment shows how pantomime has become Jamaicanised and a commercial fixture, to the point where it was felt that a company was needed to accommodate it.  This company was created out of The Little Theatre Movement, which had been responsible for the annual production from the time it was developing at the historic 100 year old Ward Theatre in Central Kingston (now defunct).

The pantomime is a theatrical form native to England and dating back to mediaeval or early Renaissance times, a folk form popular at Christmas.  It has characteristics belonging to Britain as well as others common in Renaissance comedy in Europe, particularly France, Italy and Spain.  It was brought to the British colony of Jamaica and performed every year at the traditional period, opening on Boxing Day.  The players were expatriate amateurs and the local middle class elite.  It then started to become Jamaican when the English folk tales and fairy tales that provided the plots were mixed with local folklore and folktales.  The first recorded drama of this nature was Soliday and the Wicked Bird which was the pantomime of 1942, and this developed to the point where the trickster Anansi found his way into the theatre as the villain or hero of the pantomime.  Such productions as Anancy and Pandora and Anancy and Beenie Bud evolved in the 1950s.

Barbara Gloudon (Jamaica Gleaner photo)
Barbara Gloudon (Jamaica Gleaner photo)

Eventually the pantomime was not only dramatising indigenous material, but in the late 1960s began to closely satirise local society and comment on topical issues while keeping the traditional pantomime formula.  Anansi moved from hero to trickster/villain then to the point where he never appeared again but had evolved into a character type – a villain who was a ‘samfie man’ (con-man) or hustler or simply a Puckish mischief-maker and source of fun.  Largely responsible for the creation of this character type was comedian Rannie Williams who used to play Anansi.  Various local issues were satirized till it came to the first Schoolahs of 1989.  By then ‘pantomime’ was thoroughly Jamaican.

At the same time evolution was taking place on another plane. From the 1970s popular theatre was on the rise, including the roots play and comic performance.  Laughter dominated and comic super-stars such as Oliver (Samuels), followed by Shabada and Delcita emerged.  They inherited the Rannie Williams legacy.  These characters engaged the audience in a manner that came out of pantomime and became a major drawing card in roots theatre and local farces.  Slapstick grew into a staple diet of popular plays to the point where, as major selling points, they began to influence even the so-called ‘serious’ theatre.

The Jamaican theatre moved from amateur to professional around 1970, thanks mainly to a number of personalities, prominent among whom were Trevor Rhone, Yvonne Jones-Brewster, Dennis Scott and Ed Bim Lewis (another former comedian).  Companies, led by The Barn Theatre, turned professional, theatrical entrepreneurship and cultural industries became entrenched and the norm in Jamaican theatre, like Basil Dawkins and Stages Productions.

All this recap of history is leading to the evolution of pantomime to what it is today and what has been exhibited in the pantomimes of 2009 to 2013.  The pantomime made great strides and developed in magnitude and professionalism to the point where the LTM found it necessary to develop a pantomime company.  It kept stride with the increasing commercialisation.  Doing this, however, also meant keeping close to the demands of the popular theatre, which largely includes the farce and slapstick prevalent in recent pantomimes – particularly Howzatt!, Barbara Gloudon’s production about cricket which responded to the hype around the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean.  Mrs Gloudon, who is a strong Jamaican cultural icon, seems to have a virtual monopoly as the only one writing pantomimes for several years.

Schoolahs of 2012-13 has similar characteristics of pronounced farce to enhance the element of laughter that has long been a feature.  But now it matches to a great extent the slapstick common in the contemporary roots play.  Another element is a piece of irony, because a few features that are now trendy on the popular stage were appropriated from the pantomime.  Among these is the audience interaction which has been made a major art form on the popular stage and perfected by the popular superstars.  This form of talk-back to the audience is a feature in Schoolahs. The irony is that pantomime now appears to be practising the farce and comic techniques of the roots play and many will have forgotten that the popular stage has been imitating pantomime.  This is possible because pantomime has lost strength in other areas and in order to remain popular, has foregrounded slapstick.

The villain of the piece, for example, is a pantomime tradition.  But in Schoolahs, as in Howzatt!, he has descended from the crafty or artful trickster who depends on his brain and wit to weave webs and delight the audience to a comic tumbler after the fashion of Shebada (comic superstar of the popular play).  Interestingly, in Schoolahs, the villain disguises himself as a woman – the distinguished visitor that the school expects to come to address the unveiling of a monument.  This provides farce for audience entertainment.  But it is also taken from another old pantomime tradition in which one of the principal characters is the Dame – a comic female character who is always played by a man.  Ironically again, the traditional Dame takes maximum advantage of the female character’s masculine characteristics to delight the audience in slapstick fashion.

Schoolahs also retains another element of the old pantomime in the presence of romantic leads.  The male romantic lead is no longer played by a woman, as in the old tradition, but this production keeps the part, nevertheless. The plot revolves around two secondary schools – one all girls and the other a boys school, and the ‘romantic leads’ are the headmaster of one and the headmistress of the other, who fall in love and at the end, live happily ever after.

But this is one of the ways in which, despite the title, the plot is more about the adults than the ‘schoolahs.’ Each school also has a vice-principal who provides much of the farce and humour of the play.  Additionally, Gloudon is noted for her proletarian sympathies, and she creates a number of working class women who, apart from being the subject of a slight serious study, provide humour as members of the “School Gate Vendors Association.” Not that there is no major role for the high schoolers.  There is a kind of a shadow romantic sub-plot in which the ‘nerd’ of the boys school was drawing close to the bright daughter of the President of the School Gate Vendors Association.  But the play is more interested in propriety than social realism and seemed reluctant to promote teenage romance.

The Jamaica Pantomime over recent decades developed a very strong performance quality in the retention of a live orchestra in the orchestra pit, robust music and very disciplined and creative choreographed movement.  The choreography was held firm for many years by the genius of Rex Nettleford and remains a powerful force in pantomimes.  It has been a notable strong point in recent productions although, while the quality of the orchestra is good, there are no memorable songs in Schoolahs.

The contemporary Jamaica Pantomime, then, seems subsumed in the features of the current popular play, which have weakened it somewhat.  It now seems to have striven to popularise itself, while, ironically, some of those very popular elements were actually imitated, borrowed or appropriated from old pantomimes by the roots theatre.  The pantomime of 2012-13 is an interesting study of these trends and characteristics.  It exhibits the weakening, as well as some metamorphosed variants of what remain powerful Jamaica Pantomime traditions.

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