Racy comedic theatre: nothing new

Last week we commented on the huge popularity of stand-up comedy on the Guyanese stage, and the way it sells tickets over and above all else in the local theatre. This is a marked trend in contemporary Guyanese theatre, but these trends change over time. Sometimes they are ephemeral like fashions, sometimes they are more sustaining. However, trends in the theatre take years to develop, and it is, as usual, interesting to consider what contributes to them.

Remember that we are talking about the popular theatre and there are other types such as the classical, the tragic, forms of social realism, the historic, the post-colonial, the post-modern and various forms of the experimental. Out of all of these, the only ones to have had periods of dominance are the comedies and social realism.

We need to remember then, that the popular theatre has prevailed as the most dominant type on stage in the Caribbean since its meteoric rise in the 1970s. It is the popular play that has most been able to score at the box office to the point where great fears have been expressed about the survival of most of the other types mentioned above. Social realism has sustained, but within the general theatre of realism, comedy – or rather, comic plays have been the most dominant.

In Guyana, following the very long reign of the satirical revue “The Link Show,” under Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo, comic drama, mostly farce and slapstick, as in “Nothing to Laugh About,” by Maria Benschop, commanded the audience attention.  Alongside that, one can narrow the field down to stand-up comedy, which is the specialised content of the annual “Uncensored” produced by Lyndon Jones.

Visits to Trinidad and Tobago will confirm that the most popular are the racy comedies, the farces and slap-stick produced by Raymond Choo Kong. Further north in Jamaica the overwhelming popularity of low farce and slapstick as seen in the ‘roots’ plays, the work of touring companies like Stages, the work of Oliver Samuels, Shabada and Dulcima, draw the crowds. This trend has been so influential that the annual Jamaica Pantomime has turned to the inclusion of farce and slap-stick.

The second large important factor to remember, is that we are also talking about a revolutionised audience composition for theatre in the Caribbean – the popular audience that began to invade the previously middle-class domain of the theatre after the ‘uprisings’ of the 1970s. The colonial theatre across the Caribbean has a long history as entertainment for the social elite, even to the point of racial segregation during slavery. Localization was slow through the twentieth century although it did take place, but before independence it was still dominated by white expatriates, the coloured middle class and the educated elite.

This changed radically in the 1970s with the rise of the popular local theatre in the mainstream theatre houses and venues. Localisation was gradually coming before 1950, but its emphatic arrival made an impact in the 70s when not only was there strong local content in the plays, but the working class began to take their seats in the theatre as audience. (Two truths need be mentioned – the working class always had their own theatre; and slaves did see the performances of the white ruling class, but those details are beyond the scope of our focus here.)

As elsewhere, Guyana had its working-class audience revolution just after 1981 when the National Cultural Centre became the new large venue for commercial drama, the stage was popularised, and multitudes of the working class began to attend. This has continued to the present time, albeit with a decline in numbers. But the Guyanese theatre is no longer class sensitive.

As the class and colour dynamics changed, the elite and the middleclass withdrew. Many of them cited a decline in quality and standards, bitterly complaining about the poor performances, corrupted content and plays that do not suit their tastes. Today’s auditorium is not graced by the genteel of Bel Air Park, Bel Air Gardens, Prashad Nagar, Lamaha Gardens or the newer residential estates. One is more likely to find the inhabitants of urban communities like Lodge, South, West and Festival City.

So that when we talk about the crowds who clamour to the popular contemporary plays we are talking about folk who are less genteel and whose tastes are more excited by laughter, thrillers and sensationalism. Just as in Jamaica, for example, producers appeal to them with slapstick, farce and the popular culture. Therefore, stand-up comedy is currently attractive.

Next important thing to remember is the main thrust, nature and content of the comedy.  The most popular brand is the overwhelmingly sexual content.  The current trend is sex and the comedians thrive to increase their success on stage by appealing to this audience preference.  Interestingly, this is another reason given by those members of the middleclass who stay away from the local theatre. This kind of fare does not appeal to them and many find it degrading, crude and vulgar.

This goes with a telling irony. Guyanese theatre is exceedingly prudish and conservative. Many things containing sex, violence and cursing that are commonplace in other countries are still taboo in Guyanese plays. Stand-up comedy with graphic detail and uninhibited words is the most uncensored in the Caribbean. The average routine of a Guyanese comedian in tales, language and image would not make a dance hall DJ blush.

Yet do not be too hasty in judgment or disclaimer, because that is all part of the old and noble tradition of performance, laughter and satire in the Caribbean. Sex has been the main ingredient in the performance repertoire of comedians in the Caribbean for a long time. In the contemporary period it has been the common practice. Leading stars like Rachael Price of Trinidad and Tobago trade on it, although the art of innuendo, suggestiveness and double entendre is what we get from Price among others.

It is an ancient tradition. Sexual innuendo and even straightforward reference have been at the core of stage laughter from the beginning. Ever heard of Aristophanes, great Greek playwright of comedies? What about William Shakespeare in comic scenes in some of the most acclaimed masterpieces? Ever heard of Macbeth? Or Romeo and Juliet?

Neither is it limited to the stage. Go to the Italian Renaissance and look up Bocaccio. Then, on your way back enquire about Geoffrey Chaucer, and further along the way stop and read Henry Fielding, the genius of comic narrative in the early English novel.

Sexuality in comic performance is a distinct factor in many West African performance traditions, of the ilk of the Iwe Egungu, some of which were transported to the Caribbean. The calypso tent inherited its tendency to sexual humour from the nineteenth century, including the noted tradition in the calypso itself. This may be traced from the ‘village ram’ reputation of the calypsonian, his personae and the humorous tales he tells. Sex was a generous ingredient in the English music halls, and has been a staple in stand-up comedy on both sides of the Atlantic.

When vaudeville developed and flourished around the Caribbean, local comedians grew with the traditions. The greatest emerged from that platform, including Ranny Williams and Louise (Miss Lou) Bennett of Jamaica, Sam Chase and Jack Mello of Guyana. Miss Lou and Ranny did not indulge in it, but sexual content was a main appeal in others from the same origins like Bim and Bam as well as Charles (Charlie) Hyatt of Jamaica and Habib Khan of Guyana.

The current group of comedians in Guyana are therefore not singular or out of place in a field that has been advancing for more than 100 years, with its roots in traditions that were centuries old. It must be pointed out that a number of the outstanding comedians have other focuses, like Bello and Blakka (Jamaica), Paul Keens Douglas (Trinidad). But the popular culture has put many others in acclaim for the focus on sexuality in their humour.

It is the minority in Guyana who will risk a reliance on other topics. Leza Singh (Radika) is noted for other social satire and the risk-taking racial jokes that she navigates successfully; in fact, her very dramatic stage persona is a deliberate racial stereotype. Ken Corsbie is another with a very wide variety, as is Dave Martins, when he performs in that form. Yet Martins still tells many tales of sex.

Odessa Primus has abandoned her cerebral jokes in order to appeal more to the popular demands and has gone fully into the sexual. The newer practitioners too, like Mark Luke Edwards, Michael Ignatius, Jermaine Grimmond plunged straight into the ribald. That was the routine of Chris Gopaul who essayed many characters before ‘The Pope’ gave him a winning formula (still on the sexual subject). Kwasi Ace Edmondson also scaled down his own cerebral range to concentrate on the safe popular subject. “Chubby” Williams, Kerwyn “Sir” Mars and Kirk “Chow Pow” Jardine and Amanda Austin were always there.

“Jumbie” Jones is more than most, in command of almost any subject he wishes and perhaps could be still popular with other focuses, but he will not give up the sexual themes for which he is most in demand.

At the same time many potential or former members of the local theatre audience will continue to stay away as long as sex is the main sell on stage. They have a very lengthy absence ahead of them.

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