National Drama Festival contributes greatly to corpus of Guyanese drama

Guyana’s National Drama Festival (NDF) 2017 has now reached the stage where nominations have been made for the various awards and prizes in the different categories. The annual Awards Ceremony is scheduled for December 4 when the winners will be announced, and the cash prizes and trophies presented.

Popular interest will now concentrate on who will be the winners, and that will be fuelled at this time by the publication of the nominations and shortlists. However, while there will be deep interest, speculation and curiosity over who will win, an equally enduring question is what does the drama festival tell us about the contemporary Guyanese stage?

As usual, after the curtains come down on the performance of plays, there is further concern about what remains. Will all the theatre, the pageantry, the fine castles, sets, buildings, streets, homes and establishments, all the princes, heroes, villains and citizens, have ‘faded into air, into thin air’ and ‘leave not a rack behind’? Were they all illusions conjured up for their moments of glory ‘full of sound and fury’ and then are ‘heard no more’?

The NDF is determined that it should not be so, that it will be sustainable, but also enduring, developmental, and to leave something more permanent for Guyanese theatre. And indeed, among the benefits of the annual NDF, are some of the enduring factors that it contributes to the national drama. It is always very significant, after the curtains come down, to see what permanently remains and what the various entries will tell us about the state of national drama.

One of the most lasting gifts is the creation of new plays and what they contribute. An examination of the NDF entries and nominations easily reveals those details and takes us into the minds and preoccupations of the playwrights, and sometimes, of the directors. There is a prize for the Best New Guyanese Play in each category of the festival, and this was created with this sense of something tangible and permanent being left behind after performances, after the glitter and fanfare of awards, and long after the prize money would have been spent.

2017, like all the other years so far, saw new plays written for the festival, and even those that were written for other purposes took the opportunity of being put on stage for the first time in the NDF. Regardless of quality, they contribute to the growing corpus of Guyanese drama while the work of the directors adds to the further study of what is happening on the contemporary stage.

What do we find in 2017? A look at the entries can tell us.

The major category was the Open Full-Length. Two of the plays were revisits of “old” existing plays that have been among the established works by established playwrights for many years. One was a new work by another established playwright.

The play Benjy Darling is an established Guyanese comedy by Paloma Mohamed, which was directed in the NDF by Simone Dowding. It was first produced by Mohamed at the time when there was great local response to popular plays and good rewards at the box office. The favourite type of popular drama was the comedy – farce and funny plays. New Guyanese plays were trending to those types to appeal to the multitudes who would buy tickets at a time when theatre in both Jamaica and Guyana had captured a working-class audience. In Jamaica, farce was already beginning to dominate in the rise of the roots theatre. In Guyana, any form of comedic play would get attention. Benjy Darling was created to cash in on that.

It has, however, outlasted that period in the 1990s and has been a favourite brought back a few times since. It was performed at the Theatre Guild in 2016 and has now returned once more for NDF 2017. The director Dowding also played one of the leads opposite Clinton Duncan and along with Colleen Humphrey. The play is like a parody of the romantic comedy, since the situation on the surface laughs at the romance that develops between an aged couple in the middle of an already humorous situation between two elderly spinster sisters.

But while it parodies this romance and marriage for the delight of the popular audience, it has other dramatic interests as it draws some inspiration from D H Lawrence and other fiction from the early twentieth century. It engages Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Fox as well as a short story Daughters of the Late Colonel. Here the play has an interest in the theme of ageing and the lingering shadows of the past. It also tackles class and middle-class snobbery as the sisters are relics of a “cultured” middle class society and family.

The other established play is The Woman In Law by Ken Danns directed for NDF 2017 by Sonia Yarde. In similar fashion, Danns produced the play in the 1990s to cash in on the reign of popular comedies and the attraction of the large crowds. Its title is drawn from local slang which rings of a laughable situation with the accompanying popular appeal. This play, too, has been revisited on stage since its first run and returns once again in 2017.

It is also set both in a Christian home and in the popular culture touching on a number of social issues. These are put together, however, for their value to a humorous theatre. There is the serious threat to home and family by the abuse of a philandering husband. It also treats the topical issue of lesbianism but with an emphasis on the potential for laughter as the straying husband comes into conflict with his “side chick’s” lesbian lover.

The new play in the full-length category is the latest work by established playwright Mosa Telford titled Children of Baby, directed for its premiere performance by Kojo McPherson. It seems above all a Romance (with a capital R). This is a play with several tragic overtones or under-currents, but one in which the turmoil and suffering of its main characters achieve a happy ending after the prevailing tragedy is averted and all is washed away in a happy resolution and satisfactory ending. There is catharsis after tragedy.

But it is a bit more than that since the play is based on a true story of mass murder that was very bloody and tragic. Telford uses that history as a stimulus for a very psychological drama. It has recurring Freudian proportions as well as a very Jungian thread through its fabric and labyrinth of dreams, nightmares, trauma and neurosis. It does not quite tell the story of Baby Arthur, but rather interrogates both the reasons for his psychotic slaughter of both family members and strangers, and, more importantly, the play fictionalises the aftermath of that tragedy. It focuses on his children and the children of those he killed. They are all visited by the haunting memories and states of being of those who survived the murderous spree.

The play is a dramatic study of the “children” of the man who went berserk, exploring the psychological considerations and all the spirits that haunted them. It is also a romance (with the common r) as it is a love story of two of those survivors whose parents were slaughtered. It is also the healing of a woman who deteriorated into an obsessive Christian extremism. The play, additionally makes use of several modernist techniques and makes many references to social realism and social commentary.

In the Open Short or One-Act Play category there were both the old and the new. Black Clothes by Ken Danns was directed in the 2017 NDF by Sonia Yarde. It is a topical issue drama – a carpe diem, which took advantage of a topical social situation that was a burning issue at the time and dramatises it for the attraction it would have at the box office. This issue was the emergence of a rapid response unit of the Guyana Police Force popularly known as the Black clothes. They were very controversial, accused of becoming a death squad carrying out extrajudicial killings.

The play is anchored by the story of an East Indian woman whose family finds itself at the centre of the dangerous adventures of this crime fighting unit and its tragic outcomes. The play is a tragedy and is Danns’ best play to date.

The new is represented in this category by a play called Spit, written and directed by Clinton Duncan. This one is a rollicking farce with several hilarious one-liners, and another laughable situation. Three old men struggle with their financial woes and decided to wipe them away by venturing into crime and end up staging a robbery of the post office where pension payments are made. It is a pantomime with the stock character rising from “the Dame” in a pantomime and the stock gay transvestite common to so many comedies and farces.

The Junior Category had new plays with most of them written by new and first-time playwrights. One of the entries was The Perfect Man by a developing playwright Ato Vaughn, but the play was revived from last year when it made its debut in the 2016 festival. This year it was directed by Tristana Roberts. This play takes off in a different direction from the average new Guyanese play in its attempt at a rare theatrical form. It employs the Theatre of Cruelty, a little-known type that has not been taken on by too many playwrights. It mixes this with fantasy, science fiction and a touch of the horror. As a thriller it draws on techniques to delight and shock the audience, and is a type of theatre not often seen.

The new plays Next Door Neighbour by Sidney Henry, directed by Frederick Minty, Hidden Secrets written and directed by Towanie Thom, Daddy, I Am A Boy by Randy Fredericks, directed by him and Renita Dindyal, and Letters From Father written and directed by Andrew Belle range from comedy to melodrama.

Next Door Neighbour is a very witty script and the play was charged with laughter as a situational comedy with many dark secrets revealed in multiple twists at the end. There are stock characters to fortify the comic elements. Hidden Secrets employs quite a bit of laughter, but is a play with complexities. It delves into spirituality and explores obeah in a fairly well-informed way rather than the usual stereotype. At the same time there are elements of social realism in its treatment of infidelity behind the façade of a “perfect family” whose hidden secrets are revealed through the possession of their daughter by demons and twists at the end of the drama.

Daddy I Am A Boy is a musical play exposing the plight of a troubled teenager and his rescue from facing abuse and contemplating suicide. Letters From Father is a melodrama in which a family becomes fragmented and members alienated because of the treachery of the mother.

The considerable variety among the plays makes it an intriguing competition and there is a great deal of speculation about the outcome. But the new additions to Guyanese drama will ensure that the festival continues to be very instrumental in the development of Guyanese theatre.

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