Caribbean traditions during this season

An interesting form of theatre with ancient origins that is well known at this time of the year is the pantomime. The most prominent version of it practiced in the Caribbean is the Jamaica pantomime, an annual musical production that is a longstanding tradition in the theatre of that country.

Every year a play opens on the night of Boxing Day at the Little Theatre in Kingston which is a highlight of the season. This drama has quite a run on stage, not closing until sometime around the month of May. It is produced by The Little Theatre Movement (LTM), itself another tradition, but it became such an event that many years ago the LTM created a special theatre company to run it.

As currently performed, it is a musical play with particular characteristics. It is a comedy, most times a satire, and has content and form that have undergone changes and variations over many decades, now carrying a contemporary style and orientation which have been much influenced by the prevailing theatre types.

Masqueraders in Camp Street (Stabroek News file photo)

The LTM Jamaica Pantomime Musical, to give it its full title, has a long history that goes back to its modern origins in December, 1942.  But its existence in Jamaica extends even further back, and the pantomime itself has its own history well beyond the shores of the Caribbean. The original pantomime evolved sometime in the late medieval period moving over into the early renaissance.

Often we hear complaints about cultural imitation. As recently as last week, musician, songwriter and theatrical performer Dave Martins commented on the importation of a temperate, American and European Christmas into the West Indies. Years ago, he described West Indians as masters of copy, imitation and mimicry in a famous calypso. There are two things to note here: 1) The poor West Indians have been victim – or should we say inheritors? – of cultural change, cultural penetration and intrusion; 2) There are indigenous Christmas time traditions. It is important to remember, though, that almost all of these are mixed, with both indigenous and imported influence.

In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, throughout the month of December, 2016, there was lively and extensive playing of parang music. The parang is a Trinidadian tradition that definitely gave the country a Christmas atmosphere that was noticeable and pervasive without a single flake of snow.

Parang is a folk musical form that has extensive and complex culture and background that, to be brief, cannot be properly explained here. It takes us into Trinidad’s Spanish heritage. It was practiced by villagers and is the only indigenous Christmas tradition in the Caribbean that actually celebrates the nativity – birth of Christ.  It is more than the music, but to focus on the music alone, songs, traditionally sung in Spanish, were about gift giving (aguinaldos), and in praise of the Virgin Mary. The tradition involves music, dancing and traversing from home to home at Christmas to serenade householders and receive drinks and refreshments.

The music has its own peculiar and very distinct rhythm. Today it has moved out of the rural setting and is a prominent practice by various performing groups who record songs in English and creole as well as Spanish and compete in national competitions that have all helped to sustain the tradition.  Much of it is now hybrid as the instrumentation is mixed to produce soca-parang. But this has quite a presence in Trinidad.

Another folk tradition is the masquerade or jonkunnoo (jonkanoo) in Jamaica, Guyana and the Bahamas. Groups of dancers perform this throughout the season in Jamaica, and much less so in Guyana, while it is at its strongest in the Bahamas. There is a most vibrant, lively and competitive culture in which very large bands take to the streets – mainly Bay Street in Nassau on Boxing Day and again on New Year’s Day in a fierce annual national contest. There, too, one gets a markedly local indigenous seasonal atmosphere.

While the pantomime helps to keep some kind of indigenous tradition alive to mark the season, it is not as large and festive as those mentioned above. It is also restricted to the stage, as a particular type of theatre.

The pantomime developed as a theatrical form in Europe and in Britain perhaps more than 600 years ago. At that time travelling theatre was in vogue with groups of performers roving, sometimes with pageant wagons, to perform at different venues. They often stopped in market places to act out plays using stages mounted on the very wagons or on the street sides.  Companies of troubadours practiced in this way around Europe, mainly Italy, France, Spain in the Courtly Love tradition and other forms of plays that evolved through the centuries. Primary among these was forms of pantomime, the most prominent and enduring being the Commedia Dell’ Arte of Italian origin, in existence by the Fifteenth Century. This pantomime had stock characters – virtually the same characters would reappear in different plays; the improvised, refashioned story line would change a bit each time, but still following a similar formula. This had developed in an earlier kind of drama – the Morality Play.

But while the moralities had to do with the soul of man battling against temptation and the devils to be saved and go to heaven, the Commedia Dell’ Arte, like the Courtly Love, were romances – love stories. In these, the course of true love never did run smooth and young lovers had to overcome adversities, including parents’ attempts to impose unwanted arranged marriages, in order to realise their desires. These plays had a good deal of humour and much slap-stick farce.  As always happens with these artistic forms, established playwrights were inspired to write plays based on them. The best such play is The Miser by Moliere.

In England, particularly, forms of pantomime evolved, not in the professional theatre, but among the folk who entertained themselves at Christmas time. These included the mummings in which amateur players would disguise themselves in traditional costumes depicting stock characters and, much like in the parang, traverse from house to house entertaining and sharing refreshments. These were recorded in novels such as Thomas Hardy’s The Return of The Native, which verified that mumming continued through the nineteenth and over into the early twentieth century.

One form that evolved in strong and well-developed fashion was the Christmas pantomime which was also based on stock characters reappearing in different stories. However, in this form there was more variety in the stories which did not always follow similar plots. Instead, there were dramatisations of folk tales or fairy tales or other known stories performed in the style of the pantomime. These survived in the UK boldly through the twentieth century.

These were also comedies. The tradition included reversals of roles among the actors, so that some female roles were played by males and some male roles by females. The stock characters included male and female romantic leads – lovers, or those who would end up together, since they were romances or romantic comedies. The male romantic lead was played by a young woman. There would be one outrageously comic female character known as a Dame who was played by a man. The actor would take advantage of his masculine voice and mannerisms to make the Dame as funny as possible, employing a great deal of slapstick farce for the audience’s delight. Another stock character was the rogue or villain who would be up to no good but always caught out in the end and sometimes reformed.

This English pantomime was taken to the colony of Jamaica by British personnel and became a well-established annual production. The theatre thrived, driven by English residents, local whites and coloureds as was normal in Caribbean colonial society. As was the custom, the dramatic stories were taken from English fairy tales and folk tales, but in 1942 the first annual pantomime with local Jamaican inputs was performed. A Jamaican traditional folk tale was used.

This started a positive march towards the formation of what came to be known as the Jamaica Pantomime. Each succeeding year brought additional indigenous material into what was by then a tradition, opening at the Ward Theatre in Kingston on Boxing Night. English stories continued to be used from time to time, but more and more local and black actors and actresses were in the cast. The LTM was growing more professional and saw gradual localisation of its membership.

Local folk hero Anansi became a frequent character and many Anansi stories became pantomime plots. Jamaica’s leading comedy team Louise Bennett and Ranny Williams took leading roles and Williams developed a reputation of playing Anansi. Soon Anansi became the characteristic pantomime villain/rogue and eventually, even when he was not a character, a new villain type created by Williams took on Anansi-like trickster qualities. When Williams retired at the start of the 1970s, a new comedy king elect, Oliver Samuels, took over.

Another very important element of creolisation is that the pantomime became a leading vehicle for satire. Local manners, politics and topical events/issues were always satirised each year.  Further, the pantomime is a musical, always using its own live orchestra in the pit. The Mapletoft Poole Orchestra eventually gave way to local ensembles as the music of the pantomime changed to reggae. Appropriate dance and movement were choreographed by Rex Nettleford, and the Jamaicanisation of this drama was complete. After the 1980s local playwright Barbara Gloudon became the principal scriptwriter and that has continued to the present.

A few old habits have been dropped, such as the gender reversals and the Dame. The romantic leads have lost much of their centrality as the plot is heavily focused on topical issues or events.  In an effort to remain popular against strong competition from other local theatre, Jamaica pantomimes have taken on considerable volumes of low farce and slapstick to amuse audiences.

However, choreographed movement and dance, stage groupings and choruses are decidedly strong and tend to shape the staging of today’s pantomimes. The venue shifted many years ago from the old Ward Theatre to The Little Theatre, which is the home of the LTM. Symbolically, this move from the Ward, in every way a typically colonial (even Victorian) house to the local home of the company, has paralleled the move from an imported colonial theatrical form to a Jamaican pantomime and the small contribution of a local atmosphere to the season.




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