Drama festival truncated but rich in contemporary theatre

The National Drama Festival (NDF) is now in progress at the National Cultural Centre.  The curtains opened last night with a new play Next Door Neighbour and the drama continues tonight from 7 o’clock with two other new works – Hidden Secrets and Daddy I Am A Boy.

The 2017 Festival is a much-reduced version in many ways, although the prize money and dazzling awards to be won remain the same. But because of the concept and focus of this festival the advantages and gains transcend the moment and the lucrative attraction of prizes.

The NDF has a range of concrete gains, achievements and developmental landmarks that can be counted over the past few years. Among these is invaluable exhibition of Guyanese plays and the opportunity provided for the public to see Guyanese drama old and new, popular favourites and unknown potential all in one concentrated short period. This collection of drama is always extremely instructive about the theatre of Guyana and allows a very reliable survey of the field.  Always one can see established plays, from the near and distant past and can compare or contrast them with the new and rising works, many of them being seen on stage for the first time.  Importantly, for those interested in a study, trends are consistently revealed in what is a virtual study of the Guyanese stage.

The festival this year is considerably reduced in size and in outreach and the sum total of the achievements will be less than the previous two years. But even the plays that are offered for competition in 2017 can tell a story of the place of the theatre contemporarily.

For a very long time, the settled trend on the Guyanese stage has been social realism. Within that there have been elements of humour which ruled the theatre for decades. However, it has been observed that the new playwrights in the country have been preoccupied with social and moral breakdown and the darker side of human society, the human mind and the evil in the mind of man. Some of this is again in evidence in many plays, whether it is in explorations of the imagination or dark social reality.

There are views of the family, domestic dilemma and the community, often with humour included. Next Door Neighbour, written by Sidney Henry, comes in as a previously unknown work alongside Hidden Secrets and Daddy I Am A Boy.  These works focus on domestic dilemmas and situations including the family, as in Hidden Secrets written and directed by Towanie Thom. The darker side of human existence gets a spotlight thrown on it as such issues as infidelity, obeah, spirit possession and even Christianity are examined. Infidelity is also at the centre of Henry’s play, which also engages laughter.

The technique of irony is explored in Thom’s drama, which is also in the way of the classical comedy in its structure and treatment of the main conflicts. However, while dealing with the horrors of spirit possession and vengeance it also manages to introduce an undercurrent of laughter that runs through the play.

Breakdown and dysfunction in the family structure are also interrogated as Daddy I Am A Boy by Randy Fredericks additionally touches on these and other social issues. A number of these plays are also beginning to treat homosexuality as something above the hilarious as was long the case.  They have begun to delve into abuse and trauma.

Then there is Letters From Father, a new play by Andrew Belle. This is also an example of the trend observed among the newer playwrights in delving into social issues. It is a domestic dilemma with serious problems arising from family situations and fractured family relations. It attempts forms of suspense in the dramatic situations and some surrounding mystery. A new element introduced is the epistolary, a technique more normally used in fiction, but which forms a frame and fabric for this new work. Mysteries are unfolded as the drama progresses to reveal another example of the contemporary trend in current new Guyanese plays.

Spit by Clinton Duncan and The Perfect Man by Ato Vaughn go further in demonstrating what the new playwrights are preoccupied with. They go way out on the edge of imaginary extremes.  Although serious social realism had begun to outnumber the popular and the comic, comedy has never ceased as a focus of interest. Duncan has worked in that genre before and does so again with Spit. The play, however, takes on current subjects in the news regarding crime and topical issues.

Vaughn, on the other hand, goes into fancies of the imagination in The Perfect Man. It might be a branch of sci-fi with real flights of fantasy. It is a dark drama engaging the occult, wizardry, ritual murders and sex. Here there is an exploration into perversity of the mind in a story of a femme fatale with very sinister intentions engaging in a quest that is topped by irony. It may, however, be listed as a thriller.

Thriller may also be used to describe the other new play in the competition. This is the latest work of established dramatist Mosa Telford, who has gone into recent history for a murderous plot with elements of the thriller. Children of Baby was crafted from real events. It is a gruesome tale from Buxton – the story of “Baby Arthur” who many years ago shocked the community of Buxton-Friendship and the nation by going on a spree in which he slaughtered several persons, including his mother, and a dog on the road one hot afternoon.

The play is directed by Kojo McPherson and fictionalizes/dramatizes those events and the background surrounding them. The dramatic imagination is brought to bear on a news item.

The 2017 NDF also revisits a number of plays which have been the property of Guyanese theatre for many years. These are by established playwrights and include a few old favourites. These fall into two categories that represent previous trends in Guyanese drama. The Black Clothes by Ken Danns comes from the time when topical issue drama was popular. A number of old favourites have emerged from playwrights who in the fashion of carpe diem, pounce on a burning topical issue or event and fashion a play to thrill the audience, striking while the box office is hot. Black Clothes arises from the time of the controversial unit of the Guyana police, put together to handle an outbreak in crime by violent and dangerous bandits. It was colloquially named after the all-black uniform the unit’s members wore; they were notoriously accused of being as murderous as the criminals they hunted.

The other old favourites are in the line of comedies. Benjie Darling is a hilarious thriller by Paloma Mohamed that has been among the most popular plays in the contemporary theatre.  There are plays from the era of comedy in Guyanese drama when laughter ruled the stage.  Funny plays have not retreated really, but they partly gave way to the different concerns of the new wave of local writers. Some of these funny plays have been often brought back by popular demand, and Benjie Darling is one of them.

Here it is directed by Simone Dowding a year after it was resurrected for a different festival at the Theatre Guild. Plays like these give an idea of types, movements and trends in the local drama at different periods in time, and that is why the NDF is so important for its exhibition of the nation’s theatre.

There is a second play by Danns in this year’s festival, directed by Sonia Yarde.  The Woman-In-Law is a companion piece to The Man-In-Law.  It is a comic play, which is also a topical issue drama of the same ilk as Black Clothes in that it takes off on the Guyanese slang and concept of a new hilarious brand of in-laws. It also makes hay with the prevalence of infidelity and extra marital affairs, creating humorous dramatic situations. However, the drama does also show a destructive off-shoot of such situations.

Woman-In-Law represents a time when there was much to be gained at the box office from plays of this nature in the heyday of comedic and topical plays on the local stage. This highlights one of the values of the NDF. It provides an opportunity to be able to see representative plays from the history of the drama.

Even in its truncated format, the NDF 2017 is a treasure for what it can tell you about the local stage. And even for those not interested in any study, it offers a wide variety of entertainment.  Persons can select the kind of play in which they are interested; the festival is offering it.

The final night of the NDF on Novem-ber 22 has three plays – The Perfect Man, Children of Baby and Spit. These are grouped together on a programme rated “R” – meaning “Restricted” and “not recommended for children”. Even here, audience in the NDF can choose what they wish to see, because the offerings on this night are of a particular type. In recent years, there have been several plays that have provoked comment and criticism about the excesses in both language and action on stage. The truth is, there is really nothing abnormal about them, they demonstrate the free reign that playwrights have that they have been exercising for centuries.  But viewers are cautioned if these are things they prefer not to see or hear.

History contains examples of plays and even novels that have done what writers and artists often seek to do – shock the audience with mirrors of human reality. One is the famous (or infamous) novel by D H Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was banned in 1928, and actually put on trial in 1960 for obscenity. Then there was Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that was refused the award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for being too vulgar. Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, scandalized his audience in the 1870s.

The NDF remains a minefield of treasures in drama for an audience. It has generated dozens of worthy new Guyanese plays and provided an outlet and new opportunities for many old ones.

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