The annual National Drama Festival (NDF) of Guyana is in progress at the National Cultural Centre, running every night at 7 o’clock until November 28. The Secondary Schools will compete on the stage of the Theatre Guild Playhouse over three mornings, from November 24 – 26 starting at 9.
It is expected that a national festival of this nature is showcasing the top of the line in Guyanese theatre for the audience to get sound entertainment as well as an instructive exhibition of the start of theatre in the nation. The NDF usually shows the current trends in drama so that it is not difficult to entertain a study of what dramatists are doing. This is more accommodating because the majority of the plays offered are new. Customarily, most entrants create new works which further demonstrate the contemporary trends.
This festival is run by the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama, in collaboration with the Unit of Allied Arts for the inter-schools section, both working on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Department of Culture in partnership with Digicel which has been providing sponsorship for the festival consistently since it started.
Some twenty plays of vastly different types from groups and companies ranging from the professional to the novice, coming from far-flung parts of the country such as the North-West to Berbice, are performing in the finals of the competition. This follows more than two weeks of frenetic activities during which the School of Drama visited several areas in different regions holding workshops and mentoring fledgling and community drama groups.
A very important part of all those activities was the staging of the National Drama Festival preliminaries which ended early last week. Since nearly 40 plays were entered in the festival, the preliminaries were held to test stage-worthiness, all-round strength, dramatic quality and technical competence and decide which plays would go forward into the finals. Such was the keenness of the competition that a few worthy productions were eliminated, not because they were so bad, but because only a limited number could be accommodated in the finals.
Three examples of these are worth mentioning. There was a new play titled Poison by new debutante playwright Runasi Perry performed by a group of newcomers. It was a good play working with puns, situational irony, racial prejudice and a power struggle between mother and son. It competed in a crowded category in which plays had to qualify from different regions of the country. Similarly, there was I Refuse To Abuse by Lisa Hamilton, using an interesting story format and a touch of high farce to tackle the issue of domestic abuse. However imperfectly done, it was bold enough to try styles not commonly used. There was also I Will Survive by Kelwin Gittens done by the Ebenezer Youth Group of Den Amstel, which dramatised the testing choice between prioritising Christian principles and the family bond and seizing an opportunity to earn a large sum of money to support that same family.
I Will Survive also demonstrated another critical function of the NDF preliminaries. More important than choosing the best plays for the finals was the intention to decentralise the focus of public dramatic performances and develop theatre in far-flung communities. Preliminary performances were held in local communities at unconventional venues in order to make demonstrations, open up public theatre and encourage theatre in those communities outside of Georgetown.
There were a few encouraging signs that this would happen in some places, and a hope that it will in others. Already in Den Amstel the play by the Ebenezer Group is going to be performed at a concert in the village on November 28. That is an encouraging start. The dramatic creation Who’s In Charge was performed on the compound of the Kuru Kuru Technical Training Centre before a packed house with an extremely enthusiastic audience. That was a promising signal that theatre can flourish in that locality.
The performance of Promised Land by the Buxton Arts Theatre opened up the possibilities of Tipperary Hall as a venue for theatre in that geographical area, particularly since the Buxton group performs plays every year for the NDF. Similarly, an old venue, Lichas Hall was virtually rekindled in Linden with four plays performed there. The hope is that the theatre circles in the urban centre that occasionally go dormant will remain active and attract audiences to the venue.
Such was the case in places like Bartica and Parika. Bartica may be regarded as totally new, but the possibility of performing plays there has been demonstrated and can be followed up. The Conquerors from Parika are in the finals with Our Story by Khemraj Rambharose, having performed in their community for the preliminaries. Since the group produces plays annually and has a particularly entertaining style of roots theatre, there is ample evidence that a theatre could develop in Parika.
Similarly, there have been several attempts stretching over innumerable years to build a permanent, continuous theatre at the University of Guyana. Success has been, at best, sporadic and uneven with a number of very brilliant moments in between sequences of apathy. Puzzle Me by Joshua Griffith and Tamara Rodney who lead the University of Guyana Drama Society, made it to the finals. It can easily ignite an undergraduate audience and can also travel to Tain for performance on the Berbice Campus. Here is another opening to get the UG audience on both campuses interested in theatre and have an active drama group at an institution that ought to have one and should be leading the way.
In the line-up of plays for the finals it is evident that the NDF 2015 continues the introduction of new plays. While some categories show a production of a few plays that already exist in the corpus of Guyanese drama, groups are still coming to the festival with new work that they have developed to address social issues. Most of them advance the current trend of a dominance of social realism in the theatre, thus continuing the preponderance of naturalism on the local stage. Within this, topical issues become popular subjects for treatment, mostly in realistic fashion in terms of set and form.
This may be seen in most of the plays selected from already existing Guyanese scripts. Notably, the professional groups entering the festival over the years tend to make those selections. There has been a steady sequence of Ronald Hollingsworth dramas directed by Sheron Cadogan-Taylor and Hollingsworth right up to the offer of an old selection, Diplomatic Blow in 2015. Another such case is the return of a play that was first performed on the Theatre Guild stage following a playwriting festival some years ago. This is A New Beginning by Timolyn Barclay produced by Keepers of the Light for this year’s NDF. The other in this category is a sequel, a play previously entered which has been reworked and turned into a full-length – Her Story 2 by Melinda Primo-Solomon. This version comes out of the 2015 Theatre Guild Festival of Plays and is directed by Keon Heywood.
The other plays contending for the major Open prize are both new. The Colour of Race 2 is a sequel to a play of the same name by Sonia Yarde and shows her continuing preoccupation with the local racial conflicts and their tragic consequences. Crack Jokes completes the full length plays in the Open section where most of the
professional practitioners are usually found. Unlike the others, this uses the form of farce and depends on unbridled humour.
These are the main contenders – for the heavyweight title, because this category is normally considered the most competitive and is where the more professional groups and companies are found. It carries the biggest prize, the most prize money and whoever wins here is considered the premier overall winner of the festival.
Ironically, except for the very first year, 2011, a new play has never won this award. For three years running this title has gone to the performance of an old play that had already been on the professional circuit. This suggests that it is not so easy to unseat the established experienced Guyanese playwrights.
A special monetary prize was introduced in the second year of competition for the best new Guyanese play; it has attracted a continuing multitude of pretenders, resulting in the predominance of new scripts already mentioned. But it has not yet produced an overall winner.
It must be remembered, however, that it is considerably more difficult to write a good full-length play than to write a one-act.
All in the Open One-Act Play category are new, even though only one is written by a first-time playwright. Red is the first play by Ayanna Waddell and the first to be directed by Linden Isles. Playing Chess With A Blind Man is the third published play by Rae Wiltshire, and is directed by him. Daddy’s Pet is written and directed by Sonia Yarde who has had other plays in the NDF. All three are recent graduates of the National School of Drama and both Yarde and Wiltshire are past winners.
The Junior category is packed and might be the most competitive this year in terms of the number of close contenders. There are two already existing plays there by experienced playwrights – Promised Land by Eusi Kwayana and Kabakuri’s Children by Collette Jones-Chin. All the works in the Debutante Category are new, while three in the Secondary Schools category are old plays – two by Paloma Mohamed and one by Gem Madhoo-Nascimento, created during a youth workshop.
One other remarkable feature of the entries in NDF 2015 is the continued emergence of drama outside of social realism. These are post-modernistic plays exploring experimental or modernist styles and forms. Numbered among those are Kabakuri’s Children, along with Some Other Nights by Nicholas Singh, Dance For Love by Kijana Lewis, Creative Burial Ground by Rae Wiltshire and The Laugh of the Marble Queen by Subraj Singh all in the Junior section. They are joined by Sonia Yarde’s Seven Deadly Sins.