Literary, theatrical feast laid out for jubilee celebrations

Peter Kempadoo

While there has been a kind of cooling off in the offer of plays on the popular commercial market, there has been a stepping up of activity on the Guyanese stage. While falling gate receipts have generally dampened the enthusiasm of producers and the march of popular plays at the National Cultural Centre has been checked, progress in theatre on other fronts has definitely advanced.

20100905artsonsunday2016 has seen only three full-length plays offered commercially to the public so far in a four-month period, which is definitely a slowdown. Yet a number of factors led to the creation of several new plays, greater experimentation, bolder departures from the norm, more directorial courage, some innovation and a greater frequency of plays being performed.  The only sobering fact is that this development is dominated by one-act plays with really few full-length. At the same time, social issues more than laughter, and continued social realism dominate this new movement that gained ground during the past four years.

This is due to a number of factors. The National Drama Festival was established. There was a Merundoi training programme followed by a festival of plays. There has been a resuscitation of the Theatre Guild One-Act festivals. The National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) and the Institute of Creative Arts were established. The NSTAD graduates were organised into a National Drama Company. There have been two Carifestas and two Inter-Guiana cultural festivals, but those advanced other aspects of theatre and the performing arts, not dramatic plays.

Peter Kempadoo
Peter Kempadoo

The most recent factor that has driven this current flurry of activity is the celebration of Guyana’s 50th Independence Anniversary. Many theatrical and literary events have been planned for the year. Some have already happened, and there is a crowded programme over the month.  Prominent in this is the Jubilee Theatre Festival being staged at the Theatre Guild which will feature 17 plays in all.

A few other events were recently staged. There was a performance based on extracts from Rabindranauth Tagore’s Gitanjali at the Indian Monument Gardens last Sunday. This was prompted by the (incidental) connections of the greatest Indian poet, Tagore, to Guyana. It begins with Bengali village setting and the bringing of cultural forms during indentureship to Guyana. It continued with influences in the 1930s and 40s, including a great focus on the performance of Tagore’s work in Guyana in the 1940s; thence to post-Independence times with the inclusion of lines from Gitanjali in Guyana’s National Parliamentary Prayer. The production was based on a concept by Vibert Cambridge that artistically pulled all these historical, cultural, traditional and social elements together in one performance, ending with Verse 35 of Gitanjali from which lines were taken and included in the official prayer recited in Guyana’s Parliament.

The performance included dance, music (taan), a dramatic setting produced by Seeta Shah Roath and performed by the dancers from Nrityageet and Nadira Shah. An excerpt from Tagore’s play Chitra was performed by the Theatre Guild, while the National Drama Company and students from National School of Theatre Arts and Drama presented a dramatic reading of the short story Kabuliwala by Tagore set in Bengal, and verses from the great poem Gitanjali. The production concept was driven by its suitability to Guyana’s colonial link with India and its progress into Independence and the contemporary time. This was symbolically marked by the way Tagore’s verses so strongly influenced the Parliament’s prayer.

That was one kind of theatrical performance. It was also a part of an extensive, elaborate and ambitious literary festival planned for the Golden Jubilee. Literature is being taken around the country by the National Library Bookmobile with performers from the National Drama Company and others in “Around Guyana in 50 Days”.

Another interesting event was scheduled on the University of Guyana Berbice Campus yesterday titled “Lunch with Peter Kempadoo”. The idea was a day to honour the contribution to Guyanese literature made by Peter Kempadoo who is a native of Port Mourant (next door to the campus at Tain). Kempadoo’s major work is the novel Guyana Boy, and he also did an audio recording of Guyanese folk traditions collected in the field – “The Kempadoo Tapes,” which was lodged in the Caribbean Reference Library at UG.  He also happens to be the father of another novelist – Oonya Kempadoo.

The twin to that will be “Lunch with Edgar Mittelholzer” to be held at State House in New Amsterdam on Friday May 20. A multi-faceted festival will focus on Mittelholzer’s work, including a famous radio production of the novel My Bones and My Flute read by James Sidney in the 1970s. There will be readings from other works as well as discussions led by literary experts and public community involvements. New Amsterdam and its environs, Canje, Rose Hall and other areas in Berbice were origins and early homes of other major Guyanese writers including Wilson Harris, David Dabydeen, Jan Carew, Jan Lowe Shinebourne and Cyril Dabydeen. Friday’s festival will also include some attention to them.

This exposure of these Guyanese writers to the public is significant for the way it foregrounds the community and identifies the writers with the towns and villages from which they emerged.  There is that historical connection in projecting the development of Guyanese literature from colonial times to the present, 50 years after Independence. In a way it lends identity to the writing and tries to evoke a sense of place that adds to the way localities are immortalised in or through the writers and their work – the virtual making of a national literature and the highlighting of it after 50 years.

The Guyana Prize for Literature has its place in the festival with two evenings of presentations.  Locally resident Guyanese writers will introduce and read selections from their work in the Jubilee Literary Festival staged by the Guyana Prize on Wednesday May 18 starting at 5 pm at the National Library. Following that, there will be the presentation of Guyana Prize Laureates on Thursday May 19, 5 pm at the same venue.

On this occasion all the winners of the Guyana Prize in poetry, fiction and drama who are present in Guyana at this time will be featured. They will be invited to present their work to the public.  It is expected to be a rare occasion when these decorated authors will talk about their work, read selections from it and field questions from the audience.

Two very important days of the ongoing literary festival will be the grand symposia to be held at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre on May 23 and May 24. Major presentations are expected on a variety of areas covering the development of a Guyanese nation over the 50-year period.  Literature, the arts, the fine arts, music, dance, are examples of such areas, in addition to politics, social development and history.

Running parallel to all of this is the festival of plays at the Theatre Guild, produced by Fourth Wall Productions Inc. There is no particular theme or formal considerations pulling the 17 plays together. They stretch from colonial dramas to recent and contemporary plays, covering a wide range of playwrights from established dramatists to a number of new and rising ones. It is simply a collection of many plays, all of which have been performed before – there are no entirely new ones, although a few of them were new creations in the 2015 National Drama Festival.

Of interest are those that are pre-Independence. Foremost among them is Miriamy by Frank Pilgrim directed (not for the first time) by Ron Robinson. It is an important play. It comes from the colonial period and represents Caribbean pre-Independence drama at a time when local Guyanese theatre was seriously emerging. It became one of the Caribbean’s leading comedies of the early 1960s. Along with it comes Black Bush by Sheik Sadeek directed by Errol Chan.  Sadeek was instrumental, along with Pilgrim, in the rise of local drama, and he was very interested in showing the British Guianese reality in theme, setting and language. Black Bush is one of those focusing rural Indian peasants from an estate background.

Others from a previous generation include Francis Farrier’s Journey to Freedom directed by Godfrey Naughton, John Campbell’s Come Back to Melda directed by Nikose Layne, and House of Pressure by Ian Valz, a play derived and somewhat adapted from the French comedy The Miser by Moliere. It is also directed by Naughton.

Additionally a few popular successes of the more recent past are included, such as Ronald Hollingsworth’s Till Ah Find A Place directed by Sheron Cadogan, which is one of the most popular and most repeated Guyanese comedies. Another is Paloma Mohamed’s Benjie Darling directed by Rae Wiltshire and Ken Danns’ Obeah Koksen directed by Sonia Yarde.

From quite a different group are plays which were most successful in the National Drama Festival such as Till Death a recent play by a rising playwright Tashandra Inniss which had success in Merundoi, Theatre Guild and the National festivals. This joins a few others from the Theatre Guild and the NDF as well as some written and directed by different students from the NSTAD.

It is difficult to find any commanding or thematic cohesion but it is a varied collection with a generational mix – a very busy period of theatre to honour Guyana’s Independence Anniversary.

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