Africa in the Caribbean: Jeff Henry and his West Indian Troupe.
This bold theatrical experiment in word, song, music, and dance by Jeff Henry and his West Indian Troupe* has been an authentic West Indian experience from several points of view. Certainly it has evoked a passionate response off the stage from the exiled West Indian community here- lending incidentally, a greater credence to the view that the act of leaving the West Indies, so far from implying disengagement, is often a peculiar way of announcing commitment. Many may feel too impotent to stay but
“Like a web
ls spun the pattern.
all are involved”
The response occasions no considerable surprise. It is to an unabashedly political statement aiming to recount the story of “Africa in the Caribbean” and to remind us that the Negro’s dream of emancipation remains unfulfilled, recent political independence notwithstanding. Slavery to slavery, as it were.
The politics of the statement were promptly acknowledged too, besides, by one of those countless emissaries-at-large to be found representing West Indian principalities in the North Atlantic metropole. Hardly had the final curtain dropped than a High Commissioner wrote indignantly to complain of the damage done to the region by the evening’s performance. In so doing he once more revealed how anxious Governments must be to preserve the image of gay islands in the sun, democratic and developing, multi-racial and welcoming. An unwitting warning that the time may soon be coming when, paradoxically, the artists and the intellectuals may well be placed under official threat to conform to the specifications of the open society. Such are the contradictions of the policy of “industrialization by invitation.”
The risk we run here is one of being distracted by the political repercussions of performances and the speculations to which they give rise, into making political rather than artistic judgement. However, in the final analysis, the evaluation has to be made in terms of what has transpired on the stage and the kind of meaning that it transports. In this instance, luckily, the issues arising from the action are intriguing enough. The experiment – not unlike Sparrow’s Slave, has raised just about every problem of artistic expression to be faced by a creole culture in search of what Wilson Harris has designated as fulfillment rather than consolidation.
No less than the West Indian novel, nor indeed, for that matter, than work in all the humanities and sciences, West Indian theatre is challenged now to fashion techniques of exposition and communication which conform to the exitential preoccupations of a people in a particular historical situation. Though this is by no means a parochial exercise, the work has to find points of departure in the particular materials, opportunities, and demands of a habitat where people with a history of quite specific though not necessarily unique frustrations, are in quest of more settled and satisfying correspondences within and among themselves as well as between themselves and the wider world.
Clearly it is a matter of rising above and beyond given genres. In this performance, Jeff Henry and his troupe, facing up, and seeking to transcend the stock formulations, have attempted to do just that. And this has immediately raised problems relating to audience, to stage-technique and to standards of evaluation.
The concept they are wanting to offer us here departs quite radically from the now familiar Nettleford/McBurnie type of dance-theatre, itself innovative and exploratory in its time. The conventional routines of representational dance which are now accepted as basic to Caribbean theatre such as it is, are present of course; but they are relegated to a kind of bread-and-butter role, highlights and crescendo being achieved by the introduction of three unorthodox elements.
The first of these is the employment of a narrator to link the sequences. This narrator is not an Emcee – TV fashion; he is a substantive actor, as essential to the thematic coherence of the entire evening’s statement as to the logistic flow of activity onto the stage. The development and expansion of this role could be of critical significance to the West Indian theatre which if it is to be successful, can hardly escape didactic preoccupations. Nor, if it to be popular, can it contemplate “programme notes” and all that that implies. Faced with the scope here, one imagines a Lamming as a narrator, pronouncing in exactly that resonant and public manner which Wilson Harris deplores for being detrimental to the deepening of character in lamming’s later novels. In the oral Caribbean tradition, there is a creative role to be played with word; and individuals in a way that cannot be accommodated by currently dominant conceptions in the theatre world. More than most others, Sylvia Wynter and Jan Crew and Lamming himself have appreciated this without quite ever making it articulate. Lamming has followed the idea through into proposals for radio reform but one wonders whether the answer does not lie in taking meaningful theatre in the constituencies.
The second major experimental departure made by the Henry troupe is in introduction of the song alongside the dance. To date these have tended to be kept apart. At least they have never to my knowledge been treated as co-ordinate resources. But they have been crying out to be integrated in much the same way, and for much the same reasons that Broadway has integrated ballet and opera (and transformed them in the process, to be sure).
Thirdly, and perhaps most important, Mr. Henry has sought to revive the venerable West Indian tradition of poetry-recitation. His innovation lies in the way in which he has judiciously orchestra ted it in the fashion of a vocal concerto with the leader pronouncing sweetly against a choral background of chanted interpolation and refrain. Nothing could better have demonstrated the possibilities of this medium of theatrical expression than Miss Barbara Jones’ performance of her own verse in the rousing piece de resistance. In support, the disposition of the “choir” on stage was strangely evocative of a familiar experience: the village variety concert in the school or church hall. It settled in to the consciousness as snugly as the Empire Day scene of “In the Castle of My Skin”. Without being able to specify, one feels instinctively therefore, that quite meaningful correspondences can be achieved with West Indian audiences through the development of choral recitation as a theatrical form. Somehow it allows for that muted but profound audience participation which is so essential to the success of theatre.
Yet for all the innovation and the exciting experimentation, this particular performance did not come off as such. Judged as an artistic ensemble, it lacked cogency and finish, and on that account, possessed only a limited persuasive power. To say this is not at all to detract from the effort but to acknowledge that it takes time to make new tools work. Besides, there were other weaknesses inherent in the situation. For one thing, the performance was being given abroad. like so much of West Indian art, it was out of audience context. One feels that this not only reduced the value of the innovations in presentation, but also made the script and the interpretations rather more literal and less subtle than they might otherwise have been. In this sense, the performance bears the stricture that it was something of “an overstatement”.
For another thing, both the singing and the dancing were marked as much by verve and enthusiasm as by rigour, discipline and control – reminiscent of the performance of the Trinidad Troupe at Expo, at least in the early weeks At times the dancing appeared to be little more than stylised walking though the singing was rescued by Miss McConnies renditions, things of great feeling and beauty.
The problem here was unavoidable: it is an amateur troupe – if a remarkably proficient one. The solution to that, as to the problem of audience, as indeed, to other minor problems regarding the use of lighting, decor and costume, lies in taking the show home and setting up the troupe as a permanent business. But to say this is to bring us back to an old dilemma. Artistically, there is a powerful magnet drawing West Indian artists back to their islands in the ocean sea; but politically and economically, by all reckonings, it appears to be easier to live in the me tropole. Until we have called the new world into existence!
* Played at the Saidye Bronfman Centre, Montreal.