2016 drama festival an example of art mimicking life

Guyana’s National Drama Festival (NDF) 2016 completed all its performances on November 27 last, but the final curtain will not close until after the winners are announced and the prizes distributed. This will take place tomorrow night at the Awards Presentation Ceremony at the National Cultural Centre. The nominees in all five categories – the Open Full-Length Play, the Open Short or One-Act Play, the Junior, the Debutante and the Secondary Schools were published some time ago and this generated some amount of interest and anticipation.

Tomorrow night the focus will be on the winners of the various trophies and cash awards for performances in all the major areas of production and performance, including acting, directing, design and use of set, lighting, sound, costuming, best new play and overall production.  Additionally, nominations in the Secondary Schools Category include dance drama, storytelling and the rendering of Guyanese folktales.

However, what might be of deeper and more lasting interest is the way this festival not only showcased the best of plays and productions from across the country, but provided a front row seat to the state of contemporary Guyanese theatre. This festival exhibited the forms, shapes and styles, the preoccupations, sense of staging and the immediate concerns of new local drama and the way theatre reflects society.

The NDF gave its audience a good look at current and emerging Guyanese drama. It showed areas in which it has developed, persisting weaknesses, bright new sparks of the imagination and experimentation, and several very dark, sometimes very stark areas that evoked controversy. But most of all the festival was an exhibition of what goes on in the minds of Guyana’s playwrights, and the hard-to-live-with fact that theatre exposes the society in which it lives.

A number of concerns were voiced, for example, about the preponderance of scenes of violence, including rape, domestic abuse, atrocities committed against women, murder and gun-play, suicide and hopelessness, vengeance, mental distraction, pathological states and insanity, more open representations of sex and sexuality, and the ubiquitous playing out on stage of expositions of the human ‘heart of darkness’ that lurks in the unconscious mind and the sordid underbelly of modern contemporary society.

But the NDF was not all or only violence and vivid sexuality. There were many different kinds of plays and those with restrictive content were grouped together on ‘adults only’ performance nights. Persons complained, but the criticism should not be directed at the playwrights, directors and productions, but against the social environments that created them and which they mirror. Throughout the long history of the theatre, dramatists have entertained their audiences with those things that appealed to them and audience choices and considerations have always helped to shape the theatre of the time.

Furthermore, that same history has revealed that playwrights have always sought to challenge the sometimes pathologically disturbing norms accepted by society. They have always sought to expose ills, to shock the complacency of members of the society. Ironically, artists have a job to entertain, but they also have a duty to disturb their audiences. As long as the people perpetuate persistent imperfections and have an attraction to the dark and dirty, the playwrights are going to polish a mirror, hold it up in front of their audiences and shock them with images of themselves.

There must be a reason why play after play in the NDF 2016 contained violence, rape, mayhem, cruelty, insanity and sex; why so many of them showed these in more overt forms and in increasingly colourful language. It cannot be simply dismissed as gratuitous, as depravity and the wayward, wanton or disturbed minds of playwrights and directors. It reflects a troubled and disturbed society.

Flawed

Some of the plays exhibited these things more efficiently than others. Some of them were not so well done, sensitively or even judiciously handled. Some of them were better in the writing than in the performance. There was even one instance where the director misread the play, which was highly cerebral, searching into the sources of a woman’s mental disorder. The script did it with psychological and Freudian theatre and the stream of consciousness, but the director chose stark realism and graphic scenes which ran a little counter to the type of play that it was.

Some plays chose realism – social realism and forms of melodrama, while others delved into post-modernism. Others handled the same social ills that strangle contemporary society, but went back into history. They interrogated that history and took a post-colonial gaze at the circumstances that created the flawed society we have inherited in the Caribbean. They did not only hold that accurate mirror with its frightening images, they tried to show us what caused this frightful state of affairs. It is to be noted that even these were fraught with violence, sex and madness, because that is the nature of the heritage of colonial history.

I would not blame the dramatists in 2016 for these disturbing dramatisations. Some of them perhaps felt that stark and graphic realistic presentation was what was needed to shock a complacent audience comfortable in their belief that sex and violence have no place on stage. It is suggested that it is this very suppression that leads to social neurosis. This was dramatized in a few of the plays.

Three things are to be noted. These trends that have so concerned some members of the audience did not only spring up in 2016, but were in evidence before. Honoured playwright and actor Francis Quamina Farrier constantly reminds us of the drama festival at the Theatre Guild in 1965. That milestone at the time of colonial theatre presented mostly one-act and short plays drawn either from world drama or the growing University of the West Indies Extra Mural collection driven by Errol Hill. Local modern Guyanese theatre was in its infancy with Farrier as one of the very small number of writers. The Sugar Estates Drama Festival outlived that one, continuing into the early 1980s after renewal by Harold Davis, but drew on the same limited set of plays (they did begin to create their own under Davis).

Several of these troubling plays were written by the new playwrights, most of them young women. For a very long period throughout the 1980s and the 1990s a multitude of new Guyanese plays and dramatists emerged, but their focus was to a large extent comedy and driven by the commercial. There were of course playwrights who produced other more enduring types, but our focus here is not on those. It was not until after 2008 with the Theatre Guild One-Act Festival, the Merundoi Training course and festival, and the start of the National Drama Festival that evidence of a new trend emerged. The new playwrights did not abandon comedy, but showed a marked preference for social realism.

They began predominantly to write about troublesome, illicit domestic affairs, dark deeds, immorality and deceit, and a plethora of social ills. They brought out revealing dramas about homosexuality, not the usual type where it was a source of laughter, but the way the Guyanese society was confronted with it as a reality, and was being forced to rise out of a state of shock.  There was homosexual abuse and heterosexual abuse. They focused rape and domestic violence.  That is the trend that rose up about 2011 and has been inherited by the dramatists of 2016.

School plays

However, this rising trend was not only noted among adult dramatists, but was much in evidence in plays coming out of secondary schools. I will risk criticism and further shock and outrage by suggesting that the students in secondary schools are not as harmlessly innocent as society would hope. Although some of the plays created in the school environment were written or developed by teachers, there have been as many created out of the minds of the students themselves.

Those plays have dramatised perilous home situations, focusing on abuse and rape, most often within the home. They have focused on misguided or misled teenagers, destructive peer pressure, teenage sexuality and unwanted pregnancies. These plays are often very predictable in handling these issues, tragic situations and teenage suicide, truancy and deviance. They have often shown dysfunctional and absentee parenthood and their consequences. They also repeatedly show the corrupting influences of peers in school.

I say they come out of the minds of students because several playlets are developed by the students themselves in their practical playmaking for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate Theatre Arts exam or Performing Arts at the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination. They are predictable in this respect. They reflect the environment in which the students live, have witnessed or have suffered.

Many church groups and community groups entering the NDF for the first time, have done so with plays reflecting this same troubled society.

I will not blame the dramatists of the 2016 NDF for doing what writers have been doing since the rise of the Morality plays in the Middle Ages, since Chaucer and Shakespeare. They not only reflect, but challenge and shock their society with mirror images of society’s failures and misguided norms. Look at traditional African theatre and at the Ramlila. Today’s Guyanese society is overwhelmed by violence against women, domestic abuse, abuse of teenagers, dysfunctional homes, broken marriages, peer pressure, suicide as a result of conflicts and stress.  There is a preponderance of guns and shootings. Hold a mirror against this and you will not see a clinical, ascetic, sterile and wholesome situation with mild-mannered people speaking in decent expletive-deleted language.

Plays and playwriting in Guyana are different in a 21st century society. And yet Guyanese theatre is far more conservative than say Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago.

There was a revolution in the 1870s when playwrights like Henrik Ibsen were seen as the enemies of the people in Norway for shocking them with portraits of themselves. Naturalism/Realism in the theatre began then. This increased with the rise of modernist poetry from the likes of T S Eliot, when poets saw a flawed and fragile society directionless and floundering. Much of traditional African theatre is made up of strategies to address wayward human behaviour through theatrical therapy. The Ramlila, even as it is practiced today in Trinidad, uses the example of Lord Ram against the ills of modern behaviour.

The 2016 National Drama Festival was diverse and many plays showed humour, progress and above all, excellent craft in the construction and performance of plays; some were weak, others were well done. In another review I will go into named, individual plays which demonstrated what I have said in the foregoing.

As regards the talk about ‘clean drama,’ well, perhaps we should begin by sterilising the society. Art is mimicking life and the Guyanese society does not like what it sees.

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