The performances in the National Drama Festival (NDF) 2015 came to a rollicking, hilarious end with the performance of a comic farce – popular theatre of a type that appeals to the contemporary audience. Yet there were only a few of that type that stood out in the NDF and the nominations reveal quite a mixture of different types. Among the nominees are plays, players and performances that truly demonstrate the current preoccupations on the local stage, including some of the best of those types. The 2015 NDF can claim success in showcasing the best productions from different parts of the country while exhibiting a study of what the national dramatists are doing – of what local theatre is like at the present time.
The curtain-closing farce – Crack Jokes written and directed by Odessa Primus – competes against different types on the list of nominees released by the panel of judges. It contends with another popular play – Diplomatic Blow by Ronald Hollingsworth – directed by Hollingsworth and Sheron Cadogan-Taylor.
There are also two tragic types which engage serious social conflicts – Her Story by Melinda Primo-Solomon, directed by Keon Heywood; and a melodrama A New Beginning by Timolyn Barclay directed by Marlon Joseph.
The nominations are out and the winners are to be announced at the Awards Presentation show on December 11 at the National Cultural Centre. The list of nominees surely reflects the way the Junior Category was the fiercest of close competitions among several good plays that are strong contenders. They, too, show a variety of types and intriguing dramatic interests.
The first of these is Dance for Love written and directed by Kijana Lewis. This is among the most different of forms in the line-up since it is a dance drama, representing a rare type in the festival. Several plays use dance, mostly superimposing a dance or two upon the play, sometimes with no evident integration of forms.
But this one is a drama that is moved by dance to a great extent – a genuine dance drama. Choreographies help to carry the plot and express the mood of the characters and performed by a cast of dancers. It called for technical competence in dance to add to acting and dialogue, and is quite a bold step in the NDF.
Promised Land by Eusi Kwayana, directed by Ras Michael Jeune for the Buxton Arts Theatre and a representative of the communities from outside of Georgetown. The play is set in the immediate post-emancipation period and dramatises the purchase of the Orange Nassau estate by a community of former enslaved people who express dissatisfaction with the state of their lives after an unwanted apprenticeship period and the end of slavery, bringing a ‘freedom’ that they question. There are moments of humour and others of dramatic action to tell how they pooled their money to buy the former plantation which they later named Buxton during the beginning of the free village movement on the East Coast Demerara.
The play draws on the biblical tales of the people of Israel being led out of bondage into the “promised land” and used varied performance techniques in the historical drama.
Among the merits of the piece were its engagements of rhythm, dance and movement, basing its music, singing and dance upon the traditional Kwe Kwe form.
There was a vibrant chorus supporting the story against a very effective set and colourful costuming; it was one of those that did not use the conventional realistic styles.
Another play that departed from social realism entirely and extends the frontiers of modern theatre is Laugh of the Marble Queen written and directed by Subraj Singh, a student of both the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) and the University of Guyana. This drama is on the cutting edge, experimenting with post-modernist theatre and a strong excursion into post-colonial drama.
It advances and takes further, a line of formal and stylistic theatre found in the work of Dennis Scott in An Echo in the Bone as well as in Dog. Subraj’s drama is courageous in its challenging of conventional form and the many risks it takes with the way it demands the attention of the audience with a split stage whose two sides mirror each other.
On one side was slavery and the other was contemporary Guyana, almost with one story explaining the other. Time, plot and themes, and even characters are deliberately integrated and confused. In a very curious way, the two time and space and stage zones were rigidly kept separate while at the same time mirroring each other and encroaching upon each other. It was fast-moving and outrageously, vividly, violent; its modern-day conflict and brutality reflecting the battery and assault of slavery.
The themes of education overlap – a contemporary family pushing it as a means of escape from deprivation, as against suspicion that any slave who learns to read is using it to plot rebellion for escape from oppression.
The daughter of a white planter who believes her family brought enlightenment to a savage race paralleled by the abusive Indian against Black conflicts in contemporary Guyana. Those are only a few of several themes explored in various layers of theatrical types. These include the ritualistic, symbolist and experimental theatres studied in the NSTAD.
A similar act of risk-taking courage was seen in another nominee, Some Other Nights written and directed by Nicholas Singh, also coming out of NSTAD. It shares many of the post-modernistic experimentation seen in Laugh of the Marble Queen and posed interesting challenges to the local Guyanese audience. It taxed the brain and made demands upon the mind.
Some Other Nights is theatre of the absurd in the way its dialogue is repetitive and occasionally going nowhere, with much directionlessnessa and uncertainty among characters. It is very much into existentialism with a good deal of introspection and questioning. The play got into the mental state of a character in a deep state of depression with Agatha, a former wife or lover at the root of it. The drama and its characters lend themselves to Freudian psychoanalysis in a play that is highly symbolist.
Foremost among its images were those taken from the Bible, the archetypal figures represented by Devin in the play, the temptation, the betrayal and the character being dragged off by the devil figure in the end – a final echo of the hero’s repeated references to “that play by Singh; the man killed himself in the end?” there is the tempting apple, the doom-burdened ringing of the bell signaling time and the sudden, brutal burst of violence at the end.
The nomination of White House on Black Street complicates the scene and makes the competition in the Junior Category even more severe and unpredictable, since any of these plays could win. This is a very intense drama written and directed by Clinton Duncan. It is social realism interrogating prostitution and religious zeal, a character obsessed with purging, using the word of God as bitter cleansing medicine, purging fire and weapon against transgressors.
It is also Freudian, examining a character who becomes schizophrenic and neurotic.
It dramatises a house divided, a family with members against each other and mysteries that are not quite cleared up in the plot. It is realistic in form and style but extremely intense in the drama and the acting.
The Open Category for Short or One-Act Plays has three nominees in Daddy’s Pet written and directed by Sonia Yarde, Playing Chess With A Blind Man written and directed by Rae Wiltshire out of the Theatre Guild and Red by Ayanna Waddell directed by Linden Isles. Two are social realism while one is postmodern illusionism, but they are all by graduates of the NSTAD.
Domestic violence is at the root of both Red and Daddy’s Pet, although Red takes a rarely seen departure in the gender roles and dimensions of domestic abuse. Daddy’s Pet complicates the plot with vengeance, a power conceit and HIV. Playing Chess With A Blind Man is vivid and graphic, venturing a little bit into the theatre of cruelty.
It also taxes the audience and gets into the mind while dramatising one character warped by childhood experiences and three characters obsessed with violence and mastery over others to the point where they become God.
Contenders for the Debutante Category include Puzzle Me by Tawana Rodney of the UG Drama Society, Seven Deadly Sins by Sonia Yarde for Full Gospel and Trapped by Mark Luke Edwards for Sophia Training Centre.
The Secondary Schools nominees include Farewell Felicia by the Bishop’s High, Little Garden of Bitter Weeds by Lloyd Thomas for St Joseph High, Blind Trust by Taneka Caldeira of West Demerara Secondary and New Tales of Ol Higue from Aurora Secondary and the New Opportunity Corps.