Not at all funny: A conversation with Odessa Primus

Theatre

Odessa Primus

Odessa Primus says she was born to be funny. Perhaps oddly enough her claim is not particularly believable, at least not when her intellect strikes you like a rumbustious gust of breeze once you engage her in conversation. Part of that has to do with the persona that we infuse into ‘funny people,’ perceiving them all too often as airheads who tell tasteless jokes.

With Odessa you discover that she is much more than a routine teller of jokes. Rather, she possesses a talent that allows her access to see the funny side of anything and everything, like her performance at the benefit concert for Henry Rodney at the National Cultural Centre some time ago when she sent her audience into a mix of side-splitting laughter and gasps of disbelief with her feigned insistence that there was nothing wrong with Rodney after all. In theatre you see the funny side of that sort of thing.

Odessa Primus

It would appear that creative pursuits simply overwhelmed her since Nursery School, whether it was singing or poetry or some other pursuit that allowed the theatre in her to get out. She settled for stand-up comedy, a choice which, in all likelihood, was influenced in large measure by a combination of her powerful personality and a mind that has a knack for conjuring up interesting things, seemingly at will. She concedes, however, that musical theatre is never far away from her mind.

As it happens she understands and has come to terms with the reality that the majority of the market for theatre here in Guyana is “more into comedy than anything else” and that is where she has focused her efforts. Before the Upscale Restaurant closed its doors Odessa used to be part of a retinue of creative people who had gravitated towards the creative environment that the establishment tried so hard to create. It folded eventually, the problem being that here in Guyana the theatre still lacks the official engine to sustain to sparks of creativity that ignite in people like Odessa and several others from time to time. As for her focus on comedy she quips “you have to give the people what they want. That’s how you get their attention.”

With productions like “Crack Jokes” and “Laugh ‘til Yuh Wee Wee” Odessa has gotten her own fair bit of attention though she makes no secret of the fact that she would welcome more.

Nor does she come across as a creative being who is resentful of the absence of national attention to the performing arts, though the deficiency is something that she is acutely aware of. She opts to soldier on, it seems, rather than the gripe and grumble, seemingly seized of a belief that perhaps, one day, good things will happen for the creative arts in Guyana.

Odessa Primus and her children

She finds that in place of what ought to be a patronage of the arts that reflects a genuine appreciation in the constellation of attributes that comprise a fast-rising nation, there is, instead, a condescending support for the theatre, for example, through paltry handouts, the levels of which send an instinctive and unmistakable message regarding just how much (or how little in this instance) creative talent is truly valued in Guyana. The Guyana Prize for Literature is almost certainly the only national concession to an official focusing of an official spotlight on the creative realm, though people like Odessa simply soldier on, doing “what we have to do,” seemingly  indifferent to the constraints that confine them.

You get the impression that Odessa is still light years away from giving up. Creative pursuits, it seems, have simply taken too much of her being so that if she surrenders now it may well become an act of virtual suicide. The problem with creative people, she thinks, is that performing, in whatever genre of the arts, infects the being to the point of afflicting it with a kind of helplessness that does not allow those caught fast to simply extricate themselves and walk away.

Amidst the myriad creative things that appear to dwell at the centre of her being she appears to be most energized by her work with the Sophia Theatre Company, comprising children from Sophia where she lives. Part of that has to do with her propensity for reaching out, for giving what she can to a community where, sometimes, hope is a commodity in short supply. “I see that as a social role. I want to get young people positively engaged. Not surprisingly, she regards the fact that her charges made it to the Finals of the National Drama Festival as a “big deal.” It goes beyond a bleeding heart, however. Odessa and people like her are stricken by the ‘curse’ of the creative. The cure, she believes, lies simply in immersing oneself ever more deeply in the condition

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