“Re-Membering the Brink” – not just hot air

The Theatre Guild of Guyana recently returned to the stage with a production that was very special to the institution. “Re-Membering The Brink: Oil and A Whole Lotta Gas” was significant in a number of ways. Among other things, it afforded another interesting study into comedy theatre and the audience for comedy performance in Guyana.

Its performances opened on May 26, Guyana’s Independence Day, a convenient date considering themes and topics in the production and some of what seemed to be the aims and intentions of the show. It consciously celebrated the anniversary of independence with theatre. This deepened the tribute to the nation on its birthday with a theatre performance that reflected on the state of the nation at the present juncture in its development, focusing on the most immediate issue in the national economy – the discovery of oil. Very closely tied to this element of nationhood is the reflection that the production affords on elements of history: The Theatre Guild itself and of theatre in Guyana.

Celebrating independence in Guyana was significantly tied to the history of Guyanese theatre and the history of an institution that was foremost in the advancement of modern Guyanese drama. In addition, “Re-Membering The Brink: Oil and A Whole Lotta Gas” was comedy and specifically recalls a key factor in comic and satirical drama which had major developments at the Theatre Guild itself at the time of independence in 1966 and the years immediately after. There was also a quite interesting glimpse into the factor of the audience.  Then there was the factor of the interest and support of the private sector in the theatre. 

In the Programme Notes, the production team led by Theatre Guild Chairman Paloma Mohamed, who is also a Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, commented: “Few performers in the world are so privileged to be a part of the important historical moments: the 70th anniversary of a cradle of theatre in the English-speaking Caribbean; Guyana’s 52nd Independence Anniversary, the return of a curtain to the theatre after decades, and the onset of an oil and gas and green economy in Guyana upon which we comment performatively.”

With this performance, the Theatre Guild of Guyana announced a celebration of its 70th Anniversary. This is new information. It is an addition to Caribbean theatre history to which the Guild has made significant contributions. Up to this point, research and documentation placed the origins of the institution at the period 1957 to 1962 when a number of small amateur groups that used to perform in secondary school halls formally merged. During this same period Frank Thomasson, Lloyd Searwar and others founded the Guild and the physical theatre building – the Playhouse, was completed. However, we are advised by Theatre Guild executives that older documents have been found which showed that its true origin, when the concept was first formulated, dates back 70 years.

The importance of this institution extends further than may be largely acknowledged in Guyana when one considers its wider Caribbean impact and the development in colonial times of amateur drama groups around the region. This means that developments in British Guiana were stride for stride with what was taking place in the rest of the Caribbean when a number of other similar institutions including the very famous Little Theatre Movement (1940s) and the Ward Theatre (built as a cinema and theatre house in 1911) in Jamaica advanced. 

The Guild and its playhouse immediately became the centre and capital of dramatic production, writing and performance in the country in the 1960s. It very deeply advanced the rise of modern Guyanese drama, which Norman E Cameron had founded (with limitations) in the 1930s. This rise included the inauguration of a very important product in Caribbean theatre – the satirical tradition. Guyana’s version of this was The Brink, which was largely led by Frank Pilgrim, well versed as a playwright in comedy, and Thomasson. This followed the tradition of satirical revues in the West Indies. 

According to “Re-Membering the Brink” Programme Notes: “the Brinks were highly political and focused on political satire. They were also shockingly racy.” Those qualities were common in the satirical revues established elsewhere such as Jamaica and Barbados. Politics and manners were premium in Barbados’ “Bimshire” and politics dominated the later “Laff It Off”. There was nothing shocking about the raciness, being a staple in those productions as well as the tradition of humour, vaudeville, burlesque and cabarets. The Brink lampooned political and social life in Guyana while it entertained with quite a bit of sexually-charged humour. 

“The Brink” was therefore a crucial element in the development of local drama in Guyana at a time when foreign plays still dominated. It also inspired later productions such as “The Link Show” which was founded in 1981 and continued the tradition. 

As may be picked up from its title, “Re-Membering the Brink: Oil and A Whole Lotta Gas” was “not a Brink. It was not aiming to be a Brink”, we were quite clearly advised by the producers.  The “re-membering” suggests a cross between remembering and paying tribute to an old Theatre Guild dramatic form and reconstructing that form in drama with its own content and purpose. It had elements of the satirical comedy but focused on the issue of greatest currency in Guyana today, apart from the ubiquitous and destructive politics – the rising oil and gas industry.  

There was, therefore, little of the kinds of orientations found in either “The Brink” or “The Link”. But it was not entirely innocent of those. Apart from unearthing one of the racy pieces from “The Brink”, (Inspector Flossy, 1964) it tried a few bits of risqué humour of its own such as ‘The Joys of Pumping Gas’ performed by Sheron Cadogan, a piece thriving on puns and suggestive double entendre. Other examples were some of the ribald one liners in ‘Class Oil’, which was primarily a teaching piece giving information about oil and gas – a major theme of the production. Interestingly, the piece demonstrated a superior humorous lampoon. 

One of the observations of “Re-Membering The Brink” was the relative mildness of its humour.  Missing was the ilk of vigorous, robust laughter and hilarity found in other popular shows, and perhaps that was not a priority of this production. 

It was aimed at a different audience from what is found across the other side of town at the National Cultural Centre (NCC). The latter is the preferred venue of the large popular audiences including the multitudes of the working class. The established middle class was drawn out to the playhouse for this production, largely representing the kind of audience that attended the theatre in years gone by. They no longer frequent plays and perhaps would never go to see anything at the NCC. Maybe because of this audience, the producers virtually apologised for raciness and content that had to be expunged from the matinees, though that is common fare on the contemporary stage.

The production invited a secondary school audience to its matinees, most likely because of the desire to educate the population about the new phenomenon of oil and gas. This informative element was built into many of the skits, including a few that were symbolic in intent. The ‘Doutin and Tamas’ sequences, for example, were apparently attempts at the symbolic technique with obvious reference to the archetypal ‘Doubting Thomas’ representing attitudes, lack of belief or understanding, or of doubting what Guyana can achieve in the oil industry. The meaning of those skits was, however, slightly elusive. 

Another factor in the production of “Re-membering the Brink: Oil and A Lotta Gas” was the role and support of the private sector. Executive Chairman of CGX Energy Inc Suresh Narine remarked: “When we were approached to support the Guild and this production, CGX saw the value of ensuring that this national treasure is supported but also that their brilliant response to the need for popular articulation of the matters that are foremost in everyone’s minds these days ‘oil and gas’ was given a chance to come alive.” This company in the energy sector saw the relevance of the production given its interest in public education about the sector and was the main sponsor of the production. 

Private sector sponsorship of the arts has long been an issue and the Theatre Guild was able to obtain it. In addition, a new development of the playhouse theatre was the attachment of a new stage curtain, an element which was missing since the rehabilitation of the physical plant in 2008. This was donated by Gafoor’s company with Ameena Gafoor symbolically opening it for the first time before the performance. Private sponsorship had also played the major role in rescuing the Guild from ruin and renovating the building in 2008.

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