During the National Drama Festival in 2013 and again last year in Guyana, it would have been noted that there were multiple entries of plays written by Guyanese dramatist Paloma Mohamed, performed by different groups. This gives some indication of her place as an established national playwright whose work is in demand and is actively a part of the corpus of Guyanese drama.
Mohamed’s work was pronounced in the Secondary Schools and Debutante categories. In the same year, two different groups entered Chupucabra, while there were also two separate entries by different groups of Anansi’s Way. In both cases they accounted for the Best Production Awards–Chupucabra among the Debutantes and Anansi’s Way in the Secondary Schools’. Other groups entered Massacuraman and a little known Mohamed play called Baba Scissors and the Dictionary.
Apart from those one-act dramas or short plays there was the significant entry of a full length Mohamed comedy Anybody See Brenda? in the Open category. In a festival where there is a definite trend in which most of the entries have been new plays, a Paloma Mohamed drama was among the few old or existing Guyanese plays entered.
Even outside of the National Drama Festival there have been signals of the settled and privileged place of this dramatist in the Guyanese corpus. The few secondary schools offering Theatre Arts at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams, have performed Mohamed’s plays as the chosen text in the Production Profile for examination purposes on three recent occasions. The plays that were done were Anansi’s Way, Massacuraman and A Fair Maid’s Tale. Furthermore, Massacuraman was also recently selected as the Guyanese production taken to the Caribbean Schools Drama Festival.
The emphasis on Mohamed’s plays is significant. As a playwright, academic, professional and a contributor to the work of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), Dr Paloma Mohamed has contributed to theatre education and education in theatre. The special place she holds in Guyanese theatre is rendered more important because more than any of the others, she has taken the deliberate step to write plays for schools and youths. She set about correcting the relative scarcity of plays ready and suitable for schools and young groups to study and perform by publishing the collection under the title Caribbean Mythology and the Contemporary Life in which most of the plays selected by schools are found.
An interesting additional focus of these plays is their use of Caribbean myths and folklore as the base of their plots, characters and themes. Folklore elements and mythological characters are important to Caribbean drama and the way Mohamed uses them as teaching points is of particular interest. Anansi’s Way is especially noted for this. In traditional societies, folk tales both entertained and served social purposes, and the stories of Anansi in the Caribbean continued these functions. The way of Anansi who lacks physical might, is to use intellectual power to defeat his foes. The play encourages reading, dwells on the value of literature as a source of empowerment, and the development of the intellectual power for which Anansi is known.
These plays are offered to Guyana and the Caribbean in very appropriate fashion and have proven themselves very effective in this regard. Yet, above these is Mohamed’s most accomplished play to date—the highly symbolic and metaphorical drama Duenne—outstanding in its use of a concept based on the Trinidadian folklore spirit known as the duenne. This is a mythical malevolent spirit of a dead infant arising from the African mythology of Abikus, duennes and boloms. The play is a disguised treatment of abortion with a pro-choice leaning, intricately crafted with the use of folk belief.
Duenne does not belong to the list of school plays at all, and is much more at home in a discussion of Mohamed’s major dramas such as Anybody See Brenda? The significance of the latter in this discussion is its place as Guyanese comedy. It fixes Mohamed as one of the contemporary Guyanese playwrights working with both popular and serious plays, such as Harold Bascom and Ronald Hollingsworth. Anybody See Brenda? is among Guyana’s most popular plays. It has been re-produced several times since it was first written which places it among the most demanded comedies always brought back by popular demand. It joins the list of leading popular plays in this regard: Hollingsworth’s Till Ah Find A Place and Watch De Ride and Two’s A Crowd by Ian Valz.
Mohamed therefore has achieved that position in drama to add to her lively record in the theatre where she has also been a director, an actress and a singer. Yet these made up only a part of the compilation of attributes that won her the A N Sabga Caribbean Award of Excellence in the category Arts and Letters for 2015. That prize was bestowed on her last weekend at the NAPA in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. It affords her significant distinction in the Caribbean in the field of the arts and culture.
She is an academic at the University of Guyana who has been Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Head of the Centre for Communication Studies, a member of the University Council and Head of the University’s committee responsible for the activities in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the UG. Mohamed is Chairman of the Theatre Guild, Guyana’s Representative on the CXC Panel for Performing Arts at the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE). This CAPE involvement provided further opportunity for her contributions to theatre education, which included training at the Theatre Guild and being a lecturer at the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama.
It was already a major achievement when she was made Artistic Director of Carifesta X held in Guyana in 2008. But that itself followed quite a build-up of activities. Her major award up to that time was the Guyana Prize for Literature in the Drama Category on three occasions, including for Duenne and Anansi’s Way–a record equalled by Bascom. There were Prizes for Best Supporting Actress on the national stage, Best Production and Best Director. In addition, as songwriter and singer she won the Guyana leg of the Caribbean Song Festival, earning the right to be Guyana’s contestant in the Caribbean finals.
One of her major serious plays was Testament, the dramatization of a documentary by Dr Janice Imhoff (now herself a playwright, after being a student of Mohamed in Playwriting). Testament followed years on the Guyanese stage with popular plays including Jezebel, another popular comedy made into a film in the days when that was new to Guyana, All for the Money and Reggae Marley, the dramatised biography of the superstar.
Mohamed has also written short stories and poems, including the published collection Come Fiah. She has channelled considerable research into her academic pursuits, including communications, sociology and psychology, no doubt contributing as well to several consultancies. As a spinoff from her work in both communications and the theatre, she also became much involved in film–working with CineGuyana and the Theatre Guild, with another major achievement being the President’s national film project for which filmmakers were trained and a series of short films were made and published. Recognition for extensive national contributions led to National Honours–the Award of Medal of Service, and also from the Guyana Cultural Association of New York.
Mohamed’s career as playwright, dramatist and academic is clearly a rich, varied and valuable accumulation of national and regional contributions, and the partial list above was meant to provide a representative sample of what it is.