The return of the benefit show – a theatre tradition

The theatre is built on traditions, some with historical significance, some arising from the formal nature of the profession, others because of its prevailing sense of nobility, though several of those origins are unknown, hazy and speculative. But customs, rituals and ceremony (even superstitions) have been a dignified component of the stage throughout its lengthy history.

20110807artsonsundayThere are some old professions that thrive on tradition, ritual and ceremony – the law, for instance, and academia. Academia, however, has been weaker than law in allowing much of its pomp and ceremony to go under pressure of modernity and diminishing patience in ancient majesty. Law has jettisoned a few things in daily practice, but has held on to traditions on which the profession thrives, sometimes with good reason. The legal profession seems to relish its traditions which are sometimes inseparable from its practice.

The theatre is similar in this respect and even today, ancient traditions and rituals abound on and around the stage. Some have to do with the formality in which it is robed, or its engagement with an audience, many of the terms used in the language, the way theatres are built or the rituals observed during performances.

Henry Rodney as he appeared in Guiana 1838
Henry Rodney as he appeared in Guiana 1838

So these strong foundations of the profession exist, but not in Guyana. They are largely unknown in this country where they have not survived or are plainly absent in recent times. Practitioners either do not know, or do not bother with them and the Guyanese audience does not have the experience of them because they are not observed.

One of these traditions, however, was recalled by the National Drama Company (NDC) last weekend. This is the benefit show. This one is centuries old. Interestingly, it used to be observed in British Guiana. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries English and American drama companies used to visit the Caribbean to do plays and they occasionally had benefit performances. The Guyanese records include productions of plays that were listed as “a benefit for Mr Henslow,” or “a benefit for Mrs Shaw.” Mr Henslow would have been an actor, a member of the cast of the play being performed. Through different times, companies would occasionally designate one of their performances as a “benefit performance” or a “benefit” for members of the company. Throughout a period of time, perhaps all their actors would have had benefits to show appreciation for their work, to publicly honour them, and so that the financial proceeds of the show would be handed over to them.

A financial bonus for the actor was the main motive for benefits, which began in England in 1685 when the first one was “given for a Mrs Barry whose performance elicited extraordinary applause” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Often, a company hired an actor for a contracted period “including at least one benefit per year”. Depending on the arrangement, the actor would get all or a large portion of the ticket sales. But it also became known, not only as a way of supplementing low salaries, but as a way of honouring and showcasing the actor/actress.

This tradition was remembered with the staging of The Henry Rodney All Star Benefit Show by the National Drama Company, the professional arm of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama, in association with the Theatre Guild at the Playhouse in Kingston. The show expressed the hope that the tradition of benefit performances will be revived in modern Guyana so that more actors can be honoured and recognised.

The production at the Playhouse was a benefit for Rodney, a veteran actor and comedian.  Another show titled Rukatuks – Comic Relief for Henry Rodney had been held the week before at the National Cultural Centre, put together by a conglomerate of groups and individuals, including the NDC.

The NDC effort was a variety show with a mix of music, dance, drama and comedy.  However, the main theme and most of the items were deliberately selected to be performed in honour of Rodney. One of the most popular actors in Guyana over the years, Rodney has performed on stage and in TV drama and comedy series. Although he has acted in a range of different plays, he is best known for comedies from whence his popularity expanded.

His career stretched from the Theatre Guild to the commercial stage. To augment his contribution to the stage, Rodney grew in proficiency and command of the art to become one of the leading performers in stand-up comedy, where he made a mark. His stage appearances also include story-telling to add to his appearances in films, such as Paloma Mohamed’s Jezebel and in Guiana 1838.

He has been quite a fixture in the annual satire The Link Show. But Rodney has noted contributions to theatre in Guyana over and above trodding the boards. His other role is teaching. He taught drama at St Joseph High School. He was an instructor, conducting classes in acting during the extensive training programme for theatre practitioners at Carifesta X in 2008.  Additionally, he operated his own school where many debutantes were taught to act.

In the variety show, the NDC performed an excerpt from the play Queh Queh by Subraj Singh.  It was not the whole play, but the kwe kwe sequence was extracted and performed as a tribute to Rodney. This was done since he is known for the kwe kwe tradition. He has performed it on stage and at several functions and the NDC chose to honour him in this way. It was the usual high-spirited performance of the songs and dances by the NDC.

In the same vein, there were comedy selections in the show, deliberately done because of Rodney’s acknowledged comic performances. These were in the form of short comedy dramatic pieces – Family Grouse was performed by the NDC and others such as Chris Gopaul who gave quite a command performance in this hilarious piece. Along with him were NDC members Melinda Primo-Solomon, Nirmala Narine and Nickose Layne who joined in the high-spirited rollick directed by Sonia Yarde.

That tribute continued with another short, hilarious dramatic piece by the NDC: Contradictions by Nicola Moonsammy directed by Ayanna Waddell. In similar tone it was acted by Kimberly Fernandes, Lisa Adams, Rae Wiltshire and Kemo Cort.

The other dramatic piece was the subtle, ironic and funny high comedy titled Lust by the NDC. It was written by Tashandra Inniss, directed by Melinda Primo-Solomon and performed to precision by Kimberly Samuels, Keon Heywood and Taneka Caldeira. An extract from the TV show Agree to Disagree, a highlight of Rodney’s on-screen appearances, was done by Mark Luke-Edwards and Michael  Ignatius. The acknowledgment of Rodney as a comic actor was completed with a skit by The Reactors.

His career as a stand-up comedian was highlighted by the very effective sample of the art done by Chris Gopaul, as a salute to his senior practitioner. But the overall programme also benefited from variety such as the outstanding spoken word performance poem “I Love My Art” by Keon Heywood whose performance was considerably enhanced by guitar accompaniment provided by Siesta Duncan, who also performed a selection of her own.

On a quite different note was something rare. It was a selection played on the violin by Adaeze Lumumba, a versed performer in classical music. Different styles were represented by national spoken word slam poetry champion Rochelle Christie, and Tamara Rodney, a daughter of Henry who has developed her own brand of dramatic talent and was on board to perform for her father.

Rodney, as a popular performer, continued to be acknowledged in the show in other ways.  Kwasi Ace (Kwasi Edmondson) who is a comedian, an award winning actor and a Mashramani Soca Monarch, demonstrated why he is the best in his field as a soca artist – his lyrics contain intellectual power, only slightly disguised by their lively, crowd-rousing entertainment value.  Apart from being the best composer currently, he also commands the stage as a performer. The show also featured his rival, Jomo Primo, who is also a Mashramani Soca King.

Although in a different field, both soca practitioners represented the involvement of Rodney as a popular stage artist. And that was the overall tenor of the Henry Rodney All Star Benefit Show compiled by the NDC in honour of one of Guyana’s best known actors and an outstanding personality in stand-up comedy.

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