We have on many occasions commented on the very strong and noble tradition of comic theatre in the Caribbean with insights into its history. We have seen repeated signals of its dynamism and the way this has been developing on the contemporary stage in Guyana. The most recent signs appeared in the annual comedy show Nothing to Laugh About 7 produced by Maria Benschop and directed by Lyndon Jones.
When this production started in 2007 it played to the much smaller auditorium at the Theatre Guild before moving to accommodate the crowds at the Cultural Centre. It has made nothing less than a killing at the box office from the very beginning. But it didn’t have to work hard for its clamouring audiences because the popular audience was there waiting for another show of its type when Maria Benschop took the plunge to invest in a full comic production. Guyana had already developed a lively market for this kind of theatre, and that was another stage in the development of the local popular theatrics. The trend in the Caribbean had already set the pace decades ago; Ms Benschop has literally cashed in on it, and her seventh production demonstrated strains of another brand seen in the outer Caribbean.
In the Programme Notes the producers promised the audience that “what you are about to view is the franchise’s seventh edition and could be considered its best to date.” It was the fourth in the series to have been directed by Lyndon Jones. The truth is that it has come a very long way. The first few efforts were nowhere near as accomplished as what it is now. The “franchise” was never pushed by its audience to improve the product since they were buying the tickets anyway, but obviously steps were taken to create a better show. There was no complacent satisfaction with the errors and failures of the early editions and Benschop has worked to eliminate them. It has been a commendable, sensible and mature approach on her part.
Nothing to Laugh About is a very well produced and competently performed collection of comic sketches, many of them capitalising on topical humour and references which touch on political humour without being satirical. It has always been immensely popular with a succession of sold-out houses to show for it, drawing on farce, slapstick and popular ‘roots’ theatre. It has taken its place within current trends in contemporary Caribbean popular theatre.
The history of these trends across the region is long and deep. It begins with the transmigration of traditions during the Middle Passage of African slavery when a very strong satirical culture was brought to the Caribbean. Satire was a part of normal life in many African societies where such performance traditions as the Udje and the Iwe Egungun served to exercise moral control over social behaviour. They were very humorous and, indeed, the Iwe Egungun is connected to religious ritual. The same kinds of social constructs gave rise to equally deep roots of satirical and corrective humour in slave and post-emancipation Caribbean society.
The theatricals of the folk developed with generous servings of comedy including lampooning and mimicry. Because of the nature of folk performance there was always intense forms of audience involvement with continuous contact between performers and audiences who talked back to each other. By the time the twentieth century marched on the Caribbean had a vibrant industry of vaudeville, including stand-up comedy, comedy teams and ‘backyard’ plays. Audience talk-back – meaning the habit of popular audiences to heckle and talk back to actors on stage during a play – is often erroneously labelled as peculiar to Caribbean people, but it is very much a practice of English people. It was known in the times of Shakespeare and Dickens as much as in the more recent British music hall. While not exclusive to the Caribbean it is certainly characteristic. Exactly the same goes for the prevalence of racy and sexual humour, which also has an African background.
These strains found in the theatre of laughter in the Caribbean are often dismissed as trivial, but their roots and meaning are deeply important. The developing traditions run through the calypso tents of Trinidad, the Christmas Morning Concerts of Jamaica, the jocular tales of Guyana and the vaudeville shows of all three countries in the early and middle twentieth century. There is a subtle throw-away line in one of Dave Martins’ calypsos where the singer pretends to be talking to his audience and asks “yu mother know yu in the tent, boy?” That tells a lot in great economy of language. Under-aged boys were not allowed in the calypso tents because of the heavy doses of X-rated humour and the reputation of calypsos and their theatre arenas.
That background accounts for much of the prevailing sexuality in the content of comedy shows in the Caribbean, including shows like Nothing to Laugh About and the stand-up comedy performances (again, this element in stand-up comedy is equally popular in the metropolis). But its brand in the Caribbean may be traced back to those roots. In Jamaica a brand of plays sometimes called ‘dance hall’ theatre, but more regularly known as ‘roots’ theatre developed in the 1980s. They were a definite offshoot of the vaudeville and folk theatre, dominated by hilarious ribaldry and very appealing to popular audiences. These plays were taken on tours of the country in travelling companies that developed in the 1990s and have reached a peak today. Comic actor, now wealthy producer Oliver Samuels and Stages Theatre Company with popular comic actor Shebada have perfected the art of roots theatre. This involves audience talk-back and actors deliberately taking on the audience.
A roots play can be four hours long because the action is actively prolonged by the performers who are trained to depart from the scripted dialogue and engage the audience. Stage business is stretched out by slapstick and clowning, and the audiences out in the country towns and villages would feel very dissatisfied if the play was trim, efficient and a mere two hours. They are highly audience-driven, very hilarious and close to folk forms.
This type has been developing in Guyana recently. The best examples have so far been the brand of plays performed by the theatre group from Parika who started performing in 2012. Around the same time one of the groups from Linden was performing similar types of plays, for example Pleasing Mrs Jones (2012).
Nothing to Laugh About 7 exhibited signs of that theatre. The sketches were mostly driven by the popular audience and played for extended episodes of laughter. Lyndon Jones has particularly mastered the art of this performance type, similar to Oliver Samuels and Shebada. Notable in the same trend too, were Laza Singh and Michael Ignatius whose skits followed suit.
This brand of performance is given to untrimmed excesses which delight the audience and Nothing To Laugh About revelled in it. Many of the pieces were geared to this type of farce. Some were extra lengthy and played on to punch-lines that were not very strong, but it would not be fair to say that that summed up or characterised the show. It was proficient and tightly stage managed by Sonia Yarde with signs of efficient work in elements of stagecraft by Clemencio Godette under the direction of Jones.
There was a large team of scriptwriters: Jones, Benschop, Yarde, Singh, Ignatius and Godette as well as Kwasi Edmondson, Mark Kazim, Randolph Critchlow, Odessa Primus, Chris Gopaul and Henry Rodney. They produced a mixed collection of funny pieces including the sharp, the good and the indifferent. But most of them, like most of the actors, understand the type of performance produced by this show. And this show certainly understands what to produce to delight their unending multitudes of popular audiences.