Because it is always taken for granted, it is useful to underline the place of satire in any society, and its standing as a functional strategy in Caribbean culture. Cause to remember this was provided more than a week ago by the staging of Ron Robinson’s satirical revue “Who Laff Last.”
Satire has been a part of drama since the ancient Greeks, and has reasserted itself at many different points in western theatre, while it has been at the root of many theatrical acts in traditional African societies.
The satirical tradition in the Caribbean is extremely strong. Its roots go deep as many theatrical performances during the period of slavery were forms of satire by the enslaved. This was prevalent across the region, including in sections of the highly developed jonkanoo (masquerade) tradition. It acquired great depths in the carnival to the point of becoming a part of not only theatre, but culture, as in the picong and tantalise of everyday practice. It is at the core of society, in calypso, in the tents, in stand-up comedy, and for several decades in the sustained vaudeville shows of the middle-twentieth century.
Satire also influenced the mainstream formal stage in the region, which developed the once common year-end revues that thrived and then subsided. There still is a genuine concern for the survival of this tradition on stage, as the Jamaica Pantomime might well be the only powerful survivor. The year-end shows in Jamaica, except for the pantomime, have gone; the status of Barbados’s “Laff It Off,” of Thom Cross, Cicely Spencer-Cross and Marcia Buttowes is uncertain; and the recent efforts of Raymond Choo Kong and Penelope Spencer in Trinidad have only been occasional and short-lived.
This concern should be very keenly felt in Guyana. “The Link Show” used to be at the top of the line as one of the two strongest survivors of the annual satirical theatre in the Caribbean. Its destruction in 2015 left a sad vacancy in the whole region, as wishful attempts to keep it out of the hands of lawyers obviously failed.
While it stoutly defends the tradition, the stand-up comedy of “Uncensored” is not quite the same thing, nor is the farce of “Nothing To Laugh About” though both have sustained an outstanding run of popularity. “Who Laff Last” seems to be an attempt to salvage the satire of “The Link”. Will it properly replace it? Will it survive?
This production was directed by the seasoned Ron Robinson with a very experienced cast, that has been tried and tested in this kind of theatre. Since there were no printed programmes at the show, the cast list is fashioned from recognition and other sources. It includes actors and actresses of considerable acclaim, including Robinson, Sonia Yarde, Michael Ignatius, Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett, Leslyn Bobb-Semple, Mark Luke-Edwards, Sean Thompson, Nirmala Narine, Nathaya Whaul and Henry Rodney. These were joined by Malika Edmonds, Nickose Layne, Nelan Benjamin, Leon Cummings, Alecia Charles and students from the National School of Drama: Jheanelle Kerr, Towanie Thom, Rovindra Persaud and Christophe Greaves.
Playing comedy is no push-over. There are techniques of comic acting that need to be learnt and this performance takes work, as many of the stand-up comedians have found out. In Guyana, comedy is well liked but little understood. It might even be a surprise that one needs knowledge of something that appears spontaneous and easy. But one has to know how to play it, how to write it. It is therefore of relevance how this cast measured up.
The performers perfected the style of farce necessary for this type of performance. They were versed in the kind of stand and deliver on the one hand and the important timing and precision on the other. They played excellently all round in a neat, crisp and smoothly managed production which Robinson ran at a finely measured pace. There were character roles effectively delivered with the most memorable being the intoxicated, bungling priest played by Robinson, who reappeared in different pieces. Apart from being funny, it was timely appropriate lampoon and take-off on the clergy of today, with such characters as ‘the pope’ and others in the news who mock the profession.
The Mayor of Georgetown was also one of the more memorable portrayals effectively returning in different pieces during the show, including one of the very good ones that focused on a stingy, penny-pinching inhumane and ungenerous Minister of Finance. Two things are worth mentioning here. One is the way the current preoccupation with new taxes after additional taxation is subtly lampooned in different skits, including one featuring ‘the dinner’ for the government ministers. The other is the way the Mayor is brought in to place a parking meter on the newly laid down road. A high point of “Who Laff Last” is this very use of motifs, like the parking meter and the taxes including VAT, that reappeared in different skits with hilarious effect.
But while the strategies for ridicule were thus imaginatively applied in some cases, there were repeated flaws in the script writing. The skits were mixed because some were too lengthy and dragged on to weak, damp-squib punch-lines. Others were stretched out in this way with mirthless repetition such as the classroom scene with the new versions of Guyanese folk songs.
Other punch-lines were potent ammunition and right on target. Of note too, were the uses of pun in various places, including a number of effective examples of double entendre, which always contributed to the laughter.
Another of the successful strategies in the show was the ability to turn “Quickies” into satirical material, elevating them from being just jokes. In these cases, brevity was a workable tactic and there were a few in which there was quick, sharp and telling satirical commentary without the use of words or dialogue. In attempts to diversify the strategies for commentary and humour, these worked where the use of music did not. There was not much benefit from the chutney and song performances.
Another observation has to do with the dominance of political satire. The common mindset in Guyana equates satire with politics and limits the attention to political commentary – even more so to lambasting politicians, meaning those politicians who do not belong to the party you support. That attitude tends to entrench popular prejudices and is inimical to satire, which really attacks ills, rather than your political opponents. “Who Laff Last” managed to get out of that and was a satisfactory litmus test of what was bothering the people of Guyana.
It covered a fair range of issues and tapped into a variety of subjects and targets that anyone would find funny. At the same time, it explored serious social and political issues, applying laughter in the classical way–on things that we find laughable because something is wrong with them and we know better. In addition to that, laughter is aimed at things that we need to change.
While there was still a lot of politics in “Who Laff Last,” there was much attention to the people and the society. One might say there was a satire of manners. Many skits targeted social folly, errant behaviour and ills which they laughed at. There were subjects such as crime, the police force, the clergy – institutions that should be exemplary and protecting, but which are infiltrated by rogue members who prey on people.
This production was obviously a replacement for a show that grew to be a strong tradition. Will it suffice? Will it fill the place? Judging from the response it got from the multitudes, the way it entertained and provoked sustained laughter, it certainly started off in the right direction.