Growing Stages

A brief history of Dominican theatre

In 1945, a regional West Indian magazine called The West Indian Review carried an article entitled "PLAY ACTING IN DOMINICA – 'Pride and Prejudice' Theatrical Production Indicates Nucleus of a Real Little Theatre Movement". It then went on to give a rather favourable review of the Jane Austen classic as performed by the Roseau Literary Club under the direction of Mr. H.V. Wiseman, a British Education Officer. The reviewer congratulates the cast (which included Lorna Grell Robinson, Pat Napier Honychurch, Daphne Napier Agar and Helen Dupigny) on their achievement in staging three performances at St. Gerard's Hall in Dominica which in his opinion is "about the last place where a theatrical group might expect to find either the audience, or for that matter, players enough to produce such a large book as Jane Austen's". But most interesting is his following comment that "If the theatre is regarded as a form of national expression, then Pride and not true theatre by such standards. Yet, possibility is that small, isolated communities will never provide the impetus for inherent, intrinsic national drama so that if these communities are to rescue themselves from cultural extinction, they will appreciate the value of stimulating love for the arts against the frustrations and monotony that does beset people who live off the beaten track."

The reviewer, were he alive today, would therefore be surprised to find, that over the years Dominica has enjoyed a rather vibrant theatre life, certainly in quantity if not always in quality. As far as 'cultural extinction' is concerned, fortunately for us, soon after the World War II, the definition of 'culture' was expanded to include the arts of all nations and not only those of Europe; and so the strong music, dance and story-telling traditions of our islands guaranteed our cultural survival to the extent that they are now among the most recognized and influential cultures worldwide. In fact, in identifying the roots of an 'intrinsic national drama' it is to these traditions we must return. But let us now examine the journey that has led us to the point of view.

For reasons unknown, the Roseau Literary Club did not stage another play. This is unfortunate as their establishment of a formal theatre alongside the intrinsic theatre of story-telling, masquerade street shows etc. would have been a catalyst towards the merger of the two into a unique national theatre as a natural progression. To a large extent we are still waiting for this to happen today. What happened instead was the production of more British theatre-this time in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan operattas produced by Ellis Boyd Bellot. In the late 40's and early 50's Ms. Boyd directed beautiful productions "The Mikado", "The Gondoliers" and "The Pirates of Penzance".

It is possible therefore that she influenced her young cousin Mabel Cissie Boyd, who, in her early 20's had already begun to recognize the uniqueness and importance of Dominica's indigenous arts and culture. After marrying Mr. Caudeiron and spending some years in Trinidad and Venezuela, she returned home in the mid 1950's to form the Kairi Artistic Troupe with the main purpose of promoting Dominican culture, particularly the Kwèyòl language. In face of strong criticism from the Roseau elite she staged several concerts incorporating short skits and musicals. She wrote two full-length plays, "How Johnny Break de Spell" and "Vernie", both of which were performed to enthusiastic audiences at St. Gerard's Hall. The importance of Mrs Caudeiron's work was recognized locally and regionally and the then Premier E.O. LeBlanc, himself a cultural enthusiast, joined forces with her in establishing the National Day Cultural Celebrations. "Cissie" Caudeiron remains Dominica's leading cultural icon.

In the 1950's and 60's even while Caudeiron's work continued, Roseau's Schools staged elaborate productions of British and American hit shows such as "Zurika" (Convent High School)' "She Stoops to Conquer" (Dominica Grammar School); "Pandora's Box" (St. Martin's School) "Godspell" and "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat" (St. Mary's Academy); "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (Wesley High School).

In 1963 the UWI Extra-mural Department mounted a Drama Summer School which attracted participants from the neighboring islands to be tutored by such theatre experts as Noel Vaz and Dennis Scott of Jamaica, Errol Hill of Trinidad and Tobago and Daphne Joseph Jackett of Barbados. This provided much needed training in all aspects of theatre and paved the way for the celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's Birth. This took place the following year in the form of a festival whose centre piece was a lavish production of "The Merchant of Venice" performed by senior students of the four Secondary Schools existent at the time. This brought to the fore such talents as Amah Harris, Alwin Bully and Parry Bellot among others under the direction of Mr. Joffre Robinson. The success of this production led to the formation of the Secondary Schools Drama Society which went on to stage Shakespeare's ‘Much Ado About Nothing" and a large scale American musical, "Meet Arizona" performed on the full quadrangle of the Convent High School and directed by Alwin Bully.

As most of the members had left school then the name of the group was changed to The Little Theatre Movement, thus realizing the possibility suggested by the theatre reviewer back in 1945. The LTM staged about three American plays directed by Amah Harris but when she left for theatre studies in Canada the group was rudderless for almost a year. This was remedied by the return of Daniel Caudeiron from England and Alwin Bully from studies at UWI, Cave Hill. The two formed a dynamic duo that brought a new socio-political focus to the group and in keeping with their aims of social transformation, justice and progressive change, they staged their first drama," Speak Brother Speak" written by Caudeiron and directed by Bully. The play was performed twelve times at the Goodwill Parish Hall and went on to wow audiences at the first CARIFESTA in Guyana in 1972. The group changed its name to The People's Action theatre (PAT) and went on to produce several other plays including the hits "Streak!" "The Nite-Box", "Folk Nativity" (starring Ophelia, with music by Bully and Einstar LeBlanc), "The Ruler" starring Gerry Didier "Pio Pio" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" and radio serials including "Green Gold" and "Secrets of La Cloche", By the end of the 70's, some of these plays were running for 50 performances in Dominica and other Caribbean countries. Most of the work was written and directed by Bully while "Nite-Box" was directed by Michael Bruney.

PAT's success spawned other theatre groups in that period such as Aquarian Expression who produced "Quest" by Clement Baba Richards and Severin McKenzie and "Mirror, Mirror" Minchington Israel. In 1976, the Old Mill Company delivered a delightful Christmas Pantomime entitled "Sun Moon and the Pretty Girl" written and directed by Ken Gardenier, and Paul Toulon. The DGS Drama Club produced three plays "Good Morning Miss Millie", "The Brothers Five" and "Small Change". In those years the Eastern Caribbean Popular Theatre Organization, a regional association, was also active in promoting community theatre as an avenue to social change and rural development.

In Dominica the Movement for Cultural Awareness was the lead implementer of this programme led by Greg and Sinky Rabess, Sobers Esprit, Baba Richards, Ashworth Simon, Severin McKenzie and others.

In the 1980's when Bully joined UNESCO in Jamaica, Nigel Francis took over the artistic direction of the PAT.

The birth of The New Dimension Theatre in 1983, under the direction of Steve Hyacinth, saw the start of a new wave of theatre in Dominica. Over the years the NDT has produce thirty extremely popular plays all written and directed by Hyacinth, among them the most popular being "Your Son My Husband", "Drum Voices", "Why Sweetie" and "House of Shingles". Hyacinth as playwright and director uses a winning mix of humour and serious drama to draw attention to major social issues.

In the late 1990's Alex Bruno created Teyat Pawol with a mandate to instill a sense of pride in the population as to the history and achievements of the Dominican people. As a popular radio personality and calypsonian he possesses a natural dramatic flare which is reflected in his writing. Among his many plays, "Pampo" and "Neg Mawon" have had the strongest impact on audiences through their vivid portrayal of events in Dominican history as well as present-day socio-political issues.

Recently a new Secondary Schools Drama Group under the direction of Gloria Augustus has taken drama back into schools with plays carrying strong social messages on issues such as HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and crime and violence.

Strongly associated with Alliance Française de la Dominique is Téyat de la Cour, which sometimes performs in creole and maintains close relations with theatre companies in the neighbouring French islands. It is directed by Sonia Riviere and Curtis Clarendon.

Throughout the island, plays are sporadically performed by schools, youth groups and church groups, usually as fund-raisers for community projects. Many talented performers have been discovered through these productions.

Today most performances are staged at the Arawak House of Culture which seats close to 600 people. It possesses a large deep stage but lighting and sound are rudimentary. At this time there is a dire need for well equipped performance spaces and for trained personnel in both the artistic and technical sides of the art form. It is essential that such facilities and training be made available to the next generation as a matter of urgency if they are to recognize the importance of drama and thus continue the work of moulding traditional forms with modern techniques to develop a truly intrinsic National Theatre which the 1945 reviewer had challenged us to create.

By Alwin Bully

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