The curtains closed on the theatre stage in Guyana for 2017 with the annual comedy show c, produced by Lyndon Jones and Maria Benschop. This had two segments: the first night was the competition, and saw local stand-up comedians in a contest for the virtual Comedy King or Queen of the year. The second was a full production of stand-up comedy with those belonging to the top echelon in the field giving full performances, joined by some of the others as guests.
A number of significant stories will come out of this. One is that Uncensored confirmed its place as the most popular show on the Guyanese stage. It recovered comfortably from its one bad year in recent times – last year – when the National Cultural Centre was closed for rehabilitation and it had to seek an alternative venue. It used the Giftland Mall, outdoors, and it rained. It lived up to the old saying, “There’s no business like show business . . . so let’s get on with the show.” That is often translated into “the show must go on,” and so it did, but only for one night and took a buffeting.
2017 saw it back on terra firma with still the fullest house for the year, though not its usual sold out solid. Its only rival on popularity was a show by the same company – Benschop’s Nothing to Laugh About. The current trend is that comedy is the most popular, along with farce done straight for laughter.
Different genres have commanded the box office at different times since the rise of modern Guyanese theatre took a popular and commercial turn in 1981, but none have dominated like comedy. At one time, local thrillers drew the crowds, including the horror types imitating the cinema; Harold Bascom’s mirror’ and ‘grassroots’ plays reign within that. At another time, through the 1980s, it was foreign plays – murder mysteries of the Agatha Christie and Frederick Knott ilk, then the runaway run-for-your-wife-type thrillers had their years.
From then it was a succession of local comedy of different styles. But for several years spanning the two centuries, ‘The Link Show’ broke all the box office records to be the most popular and the most sustaining, including long runs of 14 nights with full houses. Then it was the reign of Nothing to Laugh About, from the time it recruited Jones and became properly stage-worthy. Uncensored then advanced to its present position.
Comic performance, through all that period and through all of those, never lost its stranglehold of the Guyanese stage. Comedy is a classical form with characteristics that would make many of the Guyanese plays not apply, but comic performance has dominated. While Nothing To Laugh About is primarily farce, Uncensored is fully fledged stand-up comedy. That is the type of performance that leads the popular theatre at the moment.
Yet, the field is not overcrowded. Jones stands imperially above all else as the foremost practitioner, now also as an impresario and, with Benschop, as the leading producer. He heads the contemporary cast after the end of the era outstandingly led and represented by the legend Habib Khan. A handful of stand-up comedians emerged to form the succeeding generation. Henry Rodney grew over many years to command the craft of stand-up comedy and shared a place on the top echelon, but is not currently as active. The practice has been that those foremost professionals do not compete in the Uncensored contest. Kirk “Chow Pow” Jardine does not appear in that and is a prominent independent professional.
Perhaps others graduate from the competition to join the top professionals. Leza Singh, whose stage personality is “Radika” from Parika Backdam, has won the crown repeatedly and did not compete in 2017. There is no doubt that she has ascended considerably to the circle of top stand-up comedians in Guyana. The females are few, and one may say the field is male dominated. Performers like Rachel Price of Trinidad and Tobago carry the standard for the small number of women. In Guyana, Amanda Austin rose from the competition and has been an outstanding campaigner seeking to improve the gender balance.
Standing virtually alone at present from the Uncensored competition is the 2017 Comedy Monarch Odessa Primus, and she is also a multiple winner who will surely consider herself a professional in her own right. Others have established themselves over many years and are now among the popular names such as “Sir” Kirwyn Mars, Kirt “Chubby” Williams, Kwasi “Ace” Edmondson and the 2016 winner Chris Gopaul, who stepped up progressively to be the best in that year.
Also among the more popular practitioners are another few of more recent arrivals like Mark “Chineyman” Kazim, Michael Ignatius, Mark Luke-Edwards, Jermaine Grimmond and Randolph Critchlow.
Significantly, despite the high-ranking popularity, the number of currently recognised Guyanese stand-up comics is relatively low. That might not be surprising because popular as it is, as stage performance, comedy is no push-over. Guyanese do not generally believe that they have to learn comedy. To narrow it down, stand-up comedy is serious work. There is an uncompromising audience that laughs easily, but judges very hard. The contest staged by Uncensored, and the practice it has of introducing new fledglings just trying out their wings is important. From time to time, these new pretenders are guests on stage, and if they pass the audience test, they reappear later on as competitors.
This is reminiscent of how some of those who are now at the top ascended to that roost. No less than ‘the emperor’ Jones himself benefited considerably from exposure offered by Asafa George at Upscale Restaurant in the 1990s. Jones was one of those fledglings. Rodney was already a seasoned campaigner but certainly used that platform to hone his craft and competence. He occupied a lofty position only after advancing from the Upscale experience. So did Jardine, who only emerged as a professional from there.
Jones at present as an impresario is replaying that history carved out by George in opening the stage to newcomers in the field and others who did not have an outlet or avenue along which to develop. Opportunities are also rare, so Uncensored becomes more crucial.
There are many significant notes to be found in the history behind a show such as this one and the present overriding popularity of this form. Simple or unassuming as it appears, it is part of an old and noble tradition. There is a history of shows like this one and the role of impresarios in shepherding the careers of the best in the field.
Comedy and satire in the Caribbean have origins in slavery. Laughter, satire and rivalry in stage performance were common among African performance traditions in many theatricals. These were interspersed among different traditions, but very relevant among them was the tent. This developed as a performance arena and continued in modern times most prominently in the calypso tents and in vaudeville.
The vaudeville is most directly applicable. Every calypso tent MC is a stand-up comic, most notably Sprangalang of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Mack Fingall of Barbados. But the art of stand-up comedy was a staple in the vaudeville, where individuals performed as comedians. The Caribbean’s greatest emerged there, first hired by impresarios. The vaudeville concerts were popular cinema-house entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century, surviving as late as the 1960s.
In British Guiana, Bill Rodgers was prominent in vaudeville shows, as was the young aspirant, Mighty Sparrow and Lord Melody. Well known producers/ impresarios included Vivian Lee and Cyril Shaw, as well as Rogers. Sam Chase and Jack Mello were the most legendary Guyanese comedians who arose out of vaudeville shows. Their successor was Khan who became a bridge for the contemporary generation of comedians.
Uncensored is now an institution on the Guyanese stage, having survived many years and established itself as the most popular. It may be seen as continuing a tradition that is nearly 100 years old. Jones now carries a mandate as a performer. He is articulate, never short of words – far from it (actually he is a bit long-winded, but never tedious). He is consistently entertaining and is a master of the repartee, the ex-tempo. All told, he commands the picong, and all of those are tools of the trade. In his capacity as a producer, he can create opportunities and Uncensored can be used as a vehicle for that, and thus, take forward a modern and currently acclaimed entertainment which stems from an ancient and noble tradition.