Social issues favoured theme in National Drama Festival

The Third National Drama Festival of Guyana, which is now in session, seems to be confirming the growing trend among Guyanese playwrights to use drama to tackle burning social issues. The 2013 Festival (NDF) continues with three plays on stage today: a double starting at 2pm – The Date and Hamilton’s Free Reign to be followed later at 8pm by Paloma Mohamed’s popular comedy Anybody See Brenda?  all at the National Cultural Centre.

In total there are 32 plays competing in five categories: Open Long Play; Open Short or One-Act Play; Junior; Debutante; and Secondary Schools.  An overwhelming 25 of these are new plays, most of them created specifically for entry into the Festival.  Of the seven ‘old’ plays, two are foreign dramas and five local.  Four of those are re-runs of popular plays from the professional circuit which were previously box office favourites.

20131117ALGenerally so far it has been observed that the quality of the productions is somewhat higher than last year.  Along with that is the presence of more of the country’s established groups and dramatists in the competition, including Paloma Mohamed, Mosa Telford, Ras Leon Saul, Ronald Hollingsworth, Neaz Subhan, Mahadeo Shivraj and Sonia Yarde.  This is a notable shift from previous festivals that were dominated by beginners and junior groups

This has been the desire of the festival since it started to attract the best practitioners and companies in the country, which needs to happen if it is to be a truly national festival – a place where the best theatre is exhibited.  But at the same time it owes its existence to a pronounced developmental function: that is to encourage and assist new groups and individuals to develop an interest in drama and choose theatre as a means of expression. This includes encouraging more secondary schools to develop drama and radically increase the number of Guyanese schools writing CXC Theatre Arts.  The entries in NDF might not be the best place to measure success, because only seven schools entered, fewer than last year.  The trend continues, however, as the so-called top and most prestigious schools are still absent, with only by Queens College (QC) represented in the NDF.  Also, most of the small number of schools which are doing the CXC Theatre Arts are also missing.  That is strange.

There are quite definite signs of a significant trend, however, namely, the tendency of new plays to reflect social problems.  This is the case in the Third NDF where the vast majority of plays attempt to mirror the ills of the society, offer comments and condemnations, communicate messages and even aim at solutions.

Not surprising is the prevalence of this tendency among the church and religious groups.  It is expected that they would seek to spread the gospel through drama and promote religious or moral principles.  Interestingly, while they are not reticent in this regard, and do suggest that strong and steadfast faith is the key to solving problems, their plots predominantly dramatise social issues.  Two of these plays, Mara’s Faith and Unequal Yoke touch on a variety of issues that plague humanity.  In Mara’s Faith it is her constant belief and faith that preserves her from falling victim to them.  The plays touch on issues such as threats facing family life, absentee fathers, the relinquishing of responsibilities, deceit, migration and forgiveness.

Among the secondary schools there are recurring concerns for interesting ills such as child labour and child abuse treated in The Lost Hope by Taneka Caldeira of West Demerara and A Flower Without Petals by Jean Kingston of Ascension School, as well as Bladen Hall’s We Gon Lose by Jamaine Braithwaite, which also addresses drugs. Drug abuse is also a concern of Dora Secondary whose I Should Have Known by Jean Kingston mainly focuses on HIV and the range of practices that put one at risk.  Quite prevalent among the schools are themes of domestic violence, rape and peer pressure.  Children being forced to work is surprisingly prevalent and the plays couple this with exploitative parents.

In fact, domestic violence, child abuse and rape are issues that reappear in a large number of the plays in different categories, including the Junior and Open. Abusive parents and the consequences of their ill treatment of children have severe and terrifying repercussions including domestic violence and levels of psychosis.  Plays such as A Darker Side by Tashandra Inniss and Mosa Telford’s Before Her Parting tackle these in different ways.  Telford’s play is further interested in violence against women and girls including rape, murder and violent robberies.  Like in the schools’ productions, Ken Danns’ The Farepicker portrays desertion, absent fathers, family neglect and rape, while Third Degree Graduate by Vanessa Hinds also touches on drugs and prostitution while dealing with high unemployment among qualified people and peer pressure.

Several of these issues are very topical and some are issues of growing concern such as violence in schools which is the subject of Bamboo Alley by Beverley Cyrus.  This play also introduces the subject of class, victimization against students, the attitude of teachers, conflicts in schools.

The NDF has certainly been the reason for the very large number of new plays since it is clear most of them were created for the competition.  A significant development is the fact that a greater number of groups such as community groups, clubs and church groups are choosing to use theatre to deliver messages.  This is not new to such groups, but the increase in these activities and the fact that they have resulted in fully developed plays for public performance is a notable factor.

The NDF has also provided direct assistance for this to happen since it has recruited persons trained for the purpose, including students of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama to go out in the field and give technical help to the groups.  That might well be one of the reasons for the better quality seen so far in 2013.

However, the growing tendency among the new plays to attack social ills moves as well outside of the Festival.  For a very long time popular plays dominated and many expressed concerns for ‘serious’ drama.  Today popular plays remain popular, and in the commercial theatre are still likely to succeed at the box office.  Actually, comedy shows and The Link Show, steeped in humour as it is, are still the runaway crowd pullers.  The major stand-up comedy ‘festival’ Uncensored and the show Nothing To Laugh About sell out every time.

In the face of that the vast majority of the new plays that have emerged in the past three years, to be specific, attempt to attack social ills.  Some issues reappear in several of them.  These include rape, child abuse including molestation of boys, domestic violence and cocaine use.  The playwrights are recreating the rise of social realism in the theatre as it has happened in cycles since the late nineteenth century.

It is happening again in Guyana and has been given greater impetus by the presence of the National Drama Festival.

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