Ever since the early development of human civilisation there has always been a very close relationship between religion and theatre, or at least between theatre and spiritual belief and ritual. It is true for the Christian religion, whose role in theatre has been historically significant; this has continued to the present time.
This was particularly remembered when poet and performer Carlene Gill-Kerr presented Waves of Emotions Part 2 at the Theatre Guild Playhouse recently. This was a variety programme involving a range of performing arts. There were notable differences in the content, the statements, subject matter and effect of the various items. But even if praise was not the purpose of the production, the dominant theme and motivational force was the expression of Christianity through stage performance.
It is believed that theatre has its origins in prehistoric times in religious ritual as mankind developed spiritual beliefs in attempts to understand and influence the environment. Both evolved as human society and the human brain did. These involved the evolution of language, magical religion, and these expressions through oral literature and theatrical performance.
Even with the rise of individual religions, including the great religions of the world, this association with theatre continued and, in some cases, deepened.
Drama as we know it today, has origins in the religion of the ancient Greeks – their Dionysian worship became formalised into theatre with the help of oral literature and epic poetry. Out of that process came drama which was used to educate the population about the principles of the Greek religion and obeisance to their gods.
While close relationships like those continued in traditional societies such as the African and the Amerindian, after the rise of Christianity, that religion was responsible for some of the most profound developments in theatre in the western world. The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for the regeneration of western theatre which had gone out of existence for many centuries. Ever since, this religion has always expressed itself through theatre.
If we narrow the spotlight to Guyanese society, we find much relevance and application of the foregoing historical rehash. In traditional society the obvious reference point is the indigenous people and their practice of both shamanic and magical religion.
In modern society it is the obvious close symbiosis between Hinduism and theatre. Dance in the country, for instance, has been significantly driven by the Hindu religion for whom it serves as a means of public outreach and expression. Multitudes of mandirs and kendras have dance groups attached to them, there is dependence on much sacred music and then there is the outstanding example of the Ramlila.
The performing arts is less of a force in Christianity than it is in Hinduism, but it is yet quite strong. There is drama in church and many Christian dance troupes, but not a very large number of full stage productions in the service of the religion outside of church services held weekly at the National Cultural Centre.
Waves of Emotions directed by Melbourne Kerr was a secular production. Repeatedly, however, one got a prevailing sense of testimony and evangelism in many of the performance items. These dominated in spite of other items which seemed independent of any Christian purpose.
Mainly responsible for this was the producer and main performer Carlene Gill-Kerr. She is an activist in the field of culture, a writer and performer of her work, which may largely be characterised as performance poetry; some of her pieces are of the spoken-word variety. The main tenor of her presentations has been that of a Christian testifying. There is much personal testimony in her poetry. She presents her audience with statements of belief and also embarks on a mission of evangelising. She has a purpose – she would not mind putting her personal experiences before her audience as evidence in an attempt to convert them.
Many of her poems are reminiscent of metaphysical poet George Herbert who presented himself as a humble servant of the Lord who had to transform himself into a worthy vessel. Similar positions are often dramatised by Gill-Kerr. In addition to those, however, are patriotic pieces. These introduce an equally strong note of nationalism in her work and there was evidence of this in a number of her appearances such as her performance at the programme produced by Dr Barbara Reynolds of the University of Guyana as a birthday present to Guyana on the anniversary of independence.
Gill-Kerr ended the programme last week with one of these nationalistic pieces – “Build Me A Guyanese”, which she performed with a great deal of fervour. But while Waves of Emotions appealed to the patriotic among its audience, the Christian appeal was stronger. Yet she advocated “Love Done Right” in social commentary with a note against domestic violence. In that piece she was joined by dancers who are members of the National Drama Company (NDC): Esther Hamer and Jonathan Hamer who also lead the Kreative Arts Dance School.
Reinforcing the “waves” of Christianity on which this programme rode were the performances of actress Jheanelle Kerr, Best Graduating Student of the Diploma Programme in Drama at the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) in 2017. Kerr was also deeply engrossed in praise and the testimonial form in her very dramatic performance pieces.
Nevertheless, the programme offered some variety throughout its six “Waves” – sub-sections into which the programme was thematically divided. There was nothing to group or unite these in any way. Prize-winning actress Nirmala Narine, for instance, Best Graduate in Production at NSTAD 2013 and member of the NDC, read two of her own poems. Narine, who also graduated from NSTAD with a Diploma in Creative Writing (2017) read “Chasm”, which is a love poem, and “Stained Memory” which is about a man with a flawed character reputation in the village who committed suicide.
Another member of the NDC and Runner-Up Best Graduating Student of NSTAD (2013) Mark Luke-Edwards is a leading spoken word poet. This multiple Best Actor award winner presented his own work and the work of others in “The Artist” and “Useless Hands”. Best Actor and National Poetry Slam prize winner Randolph Critchlow was another contribution to diversity on the programe, as was Keon Heywood. Heywood joined the list of prize-winning actors with the performance of dramatic pieces in spoken word and dance movements.
Apart from the Hamers, the variety production also offered additional dance performances by Royal Dance Ministries, a group that seemed to specialise in Christian dance. They gave further strength and life to the factor of praise in choreographies such as “Intimacy”.
The production played on the central imagery of waves in the titles for the programmes sub-divisions: “Splashing Waves”, “Calming Waves”, “Turbulent Waves” and others, but there was very little difference in the groups of items presented from one “wave” to another. Neither sub-sections nor titles did anything to shape or define the programme, which, itself, carried a sub-title “The Life Wave”. That must have been a signal that the production desired to highlight various life experiences and social conditions expressed in different disciplines of the performing arts.