Reference Entry

Theater in the Caribbean

Marian Aguiar

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Theater in the Caribbean

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Contemporary theater in the Caribbean has been shaped by the different cultures—Native American, European, African, East Indian, Madeiran, and Chinese—that have brought forms of performance from around the world to the Caribbean basin. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Caribbean, the elements of stage and street performance, including written plays, storytelling, festivals, music, and dance, combined to create new types of theater. During colonial times stage performance was often sponsored by the wealthy and evolved separately from African culture. More recently, however, performers and directors have begun to explore the African roots of a Caribbean theater through the incorporation of Afro-Caribbean religious practices and social rituals (such as dance, storytelling, and singing) which date to the period of slavery or before their arrival.Early InfluencesPerformance was a critical part of the early colonial history of the islands, mediating the contacts between natives and European missionaries. The native Carib and Arawak peoples of the Antilles enacted areítos which, according to scholar Sandra Cypess, were “complex theatre-dance forms that incorporated music with full-dress costume to recount the historical, religious, and cultural repertoire of the society.” When missionaries arrived, they appropriated the areítos dramatic form to teach the tenets of Christianity.Later, European colonizers, as well as elite mulattos (people of African and European descent) in the French and Spanish territories such as the present-day Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti, enjoyed imported theatrical performances on stage. From the seventeenth century onward and during the course of the Transatlantic slave trade, landholders and the small commercial elite watched professional companies from Europe, and later North America, perform plays written abroad. The audience of mostly white Creole (offspring of Europeans born in the Americas) plantation owners and wealthy merchants attended performances in newly built playhouses and public halls. By 1800, strolling players from North America were entertaining those who could not afford the expensive theater tickets.On the plantations, slaves kept alive African performance traditions, developing these into new forms that were both modes of resistance and expressions of celebration. Gifted storytellers integrated tale and performance, often incorporating music and dance. Asanti slaves from the African Gold Coast (now Ghana) brought one narrative tradition, the Anancy story, that developed as a form throughout the Afro-Caribbean. Originally centered on the trickster character of a spider who was a master of wit and cunning, the Anancy (Anansi) stories evolved to include African beast fables and sometimes even European fairy tales, but maintained the element of song. Frequently these stories centered on survival strategies to maintain the spirit in the face of slavery. Festivals such as the Christmas celebration jonkonnu in Jamaica incorporated the sounds of drums, horns, flutes, rattles, and fiddles—instruments that later made their way into the music of contemporary Caribbean theater. Some of these festivals also brought elements of closed stage to the streets: often a performer reproduced stage drama scenes and costumes for audiences outside the theater.Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, another group added their dramatic traditions to the mix. Indentured laborers came from India, bringing their own festivals to the islands of Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica. The Caribbean transformed these performances: for example, the Muslim celebration of Muharram, a reenactment of a mythical story staged the first month of the Muslim year, came to incorporate influences from Hindus and Afro-Caribbean participants as well.Over the years, Afro-Caribbean performance grew from an art form barely tolerated by plantation owners, to an underground movement after abolition, and finally to an expression of national culture in the twentieth century. Yet even as traditions of storytelling, music, dance, and festival maintained their presence in their homes and on the streets, Afro-Caribbeans themselves also sought to enter the world of stage theater. It was not until well into the twentieth century, however, that plays by Afro-Caribbeans began to be produced in considerable numbers. The same was true in Brazil, where the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) brought Afro-Brazilian plays to the stage beginning in 1944. When blacks finally made their way onto the stage, they transformed the Caribbean theater world by incorporating their performance traditions and by emphasizing community building through theater.Theater in the Hispanic CaribbeanIn 1588, the first white criollo (American born of Spanish descent) playwright, Cristóbal de Llerena de Rueda from Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic), began the Caribbean theatrical traditions of parody and social commentary that would continue to characterize Spanish-speaking Caribbean theater well into the twentieth century. Although it was some time before Afro-Caribbeans themselves made it into the exclusive ranks of art theater, their presence was felt on the stage long before that. In Puerto Rico, Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, for example, wrote plays such as “La cuarterona” (The Quadroon, 1867), that underscored the racially mixed milieu of the colony. Sometimes the awareness of an African presence took the form of anxious ridicule: Francisco Covarrubias, considered the “father of Cuban national theater,” used the trope of ‘el negrito,’ or blackface. This teatro bufo, as it came to be known, became increasingly popular in mid-to-late nineteenth century Cuba, demonstrating the centrality of the African presence in Cuba. Performed by white actors who parodied the looks and manners of blacks, el negrito revealed more about the racism of white society than it presented an accurate portrayal of Afro-Cubans. As scholar Jill Lane points out, teatro bufo used stereotypical portrayals of Africans to define a distinct white criollo identity: “blackface performance catered to the anxieties of a white social class deeply concerned with their own racial definition in an unstable matrix of race, class, and power.” In other words, in a racial milieu that was increasingly mixed, the Caribbean-born whites forged their own identity in uneasy opposition to the Afro-Caribbeans.By the 1930s theater in Puerto Rico became an important vehicle to represent and define national identity. In 1938, playwright and director Emilio Belaval developed the short-lived national theater in San Juan, producing plays with national themes such as the need for social reform. The theater used drama to advocate the cause of the jíbaro (peasant), a figure that was increasingly becoming a rallying point for national identity. Belaval's theater also explored such politicized issues as the immigrant experience in the United States. Between 1944 and 1956—the politically tense period prior to and following the adoption of commonwealth status in 1952—the presentation of Puerto Rican plays at the University of Puerto Rico was banned, possibly because of the genre's potential for political commentary. After 1956, Puerto Rican theater found its renewal under the direction of Francisco Arriví, Manuel Méndez Ballester, and René Marqués. They dominated the theater scene, producing plays that explored a range of social, political, philosophic and psychological quandaries. These directors were responding to the political and economic situation after the U.S.-sponsored plan for accelerated development known as Operation Bootstrap. Like many Puerto Rican writers and intellectuals of the time, they reacted to U.S. imperialism by defending the Hispanic culture: Marqués' La carreta (1952; The Ox-Cart), for example, underscored the economic difficulties faced by Puerto Ricans in the island and focused on the need to preserve Hispanic culture. As a result, within nationalist narratives of Puerto Rico, the history of Hispanic culture was frequently emphasized over that of Africans.Early-twentieth-century theater in Cuba, particularly Luis A. Baralt's Teatro la Cueva (Cave Theatre, 1928), drew on avant-garde movements of Latin American and European theater more closely than other places. Since the 1959 Cuban revolution theater has enjoyed a privileged position in the island. Seeing theater as a critical tool of education to reach working classes, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro encouraged the movement of the theater into public spaces, and the development of community-based theater. This was the theater of collective creation, according to scholar Martin Banham: Community based, this movement adopts the method of research into problems of a given geographic area in which the theater is located with attempts to solve these problems in a dramatic presentation with community involvement. For example, Grupo Teatro Escambray, founded in 1968, used regional interviews to create local performances incorporating the concerns of a particular community. Cuban theater has explored Cuba's vibrant African traditions. For example, Eugenio Hernãndez Espinosa, with his plays María Antonia (1976), Oba y Shangó (1980; King and Shangó) and Odebí el cazador (1980; Obedí the Hunter), has focused on issues of ethnic marginality and African mythic traditions. However, given the administration's official position that class conflict is the main factor underlying racial tensions, plays that emphasize class issues have frequently been supported over those that accentuate the African racial and cultural heritage of Cuba.Theater in Haiti and the Francophone CaribbeanEarly Haitian theater can be divided into two linguistic groups: French-speaking and Creole-speaking. The first type was the most popular within elite classes, even after the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Early Francophone stage theater in Haiti was mostly confined to imported performances, or theater focused on the themes dominant in France. The second theatrical form developed around Creole, the everyday language of most Haitians. The Indigéniste (Autochthonous) Movement was an early Haitian movement that asserted folk culture in response to the 1915–1934 United States occupation. It has only been recently, however, as Creole gains official recognition within Haiti, that art theater has expanded to include Creole performances.In French-speaking Martinique and Guadeloupe, theater underwent a transformation during the 1930s, shifting from themes that emphasized French cultural heritage to a celebration of African identity. The Négritude movement that shaped Francophone theater in the twentieth century was initiated by Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Léon-Gontran Damas from French Guiana, and Léopold Senghor from Senegal. According to scholar Juris Silenieks, the 1960–1975 period of the Négritude movement and its followers “feature a spirit of confrontational combativeness and a commitment to intervene in the burning sociopolitical issues of the day.” Those issues were most often colonization and African identity. Three of Césaire's plays from that period, La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963; The Tragedy of King Christophe), Une saison au Congo (1966; A Season in Congo) and Une tempête (1969; A Tempest, an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest), focus on the impact of colonialism and the need for a decolonization that is cultural as well as political. In both historical and contemporary plays, Césaire integrated African, Caribbean, and French themes to engage with the black liberation movements of the 1960s.Despite their Afrocentric outlooks, for the most part Négritude playwrights chose French as their mode of expression over the Creole spoken by many of African descent. They also looked more toward a pure African identity rather than the hybrid culture of the Caribbean. Haitians Félix Morisseau-Leroy and Gérard Chenet, despite their dissimilar politics and styles, continued to turn to Africa as a source of inspiration for their work.As interest in Afro-Caribbean identity widened, more writers became interested in theatrical works incorporating Creole language. As early as 1954, Morriseau-Leroy had published the play Antigone en creole, in part as a response to elite notions that French was the only language for intellectual works in Haitian theater. Edouard Glissant, a student of Césaire, began using Creole words and phrases as well as syntax in his work. More recent playwrights, such as Martiniquan writers Ina Césaire and Patrick Chamoiseau, have integrated Creole as well as other elements of oral culture and folklore into their theatrical works.Many contemporary playwrights have concerned themselves with exploring the many cultural, as well as linguistic, influences in the French-speaking Caribbean. Maryse Condé's plays Dieu nous l'a donné (1972; God Gave it to Us) and Mort d'Oluwémi d'Ajumako (1973; The Death of Oluwémi of Ajumako), examined the impact of new values upon tradition communities in the Caribbean. Franck Fouché integrated elements from Catholic and Vodou rituals to produce Général Baron-la-Croix ou le silence masqué (1971; General Baron of the Cross or Masked Silence), a play performed in Creole.Theater in the Anglophone CaribbeanThe 1930s were a turning point in Anglophone Caribbean theater, as cultural leaders, spurred by the Négritude movement, turned to Drama with the end goal of validating African identity and retelling Caribbean history. This was accompanied by a movement to take art theater outside the confines of the stage, begun as early as 1869, when Henry G. Murray toured Jamaica with oral performances representing Jamaican society. In 1931, Guyanese writer Norman Cameron, for example, wrote plays based on African history and performed them in Guyanese schools. By integrating political drama with the vibrant cultural forms of storytelling and festival, producers and playwrights sought to promote political causes such as decolonization and nationalism. In Jamaica, the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey created a “theater for the masses” in 1930 on an open air stage in Kingston. Along with three of his own productions, the stage hosted the popular comedy work of Ranny Williams. In 1939, as labor unrest increased in Jamaica, Frank Hill produced Upheaval, using the stage to promote social revolution.In London, Trinidadian C. L. R. James brought the experience and aftermath of the Haitian revolution to the world with his production of Toussaint L'Overture (1936). The play was groundbreaking, not only because it represented the little-known history of the Haitian Revolution, but also because it turned the attention of the Caribbean theater as a whole toward the relatively unexplored subject of Caribbean history. Others, such as Una Marson, considered by some to be the most successful playwright in 1930s Jamaica, explored the social milieu of the Caribbean with plays such as Pocomania (1938).The expansion of national theater in the Anglophone Caribbean during the 1930s was followed by an increased interest in both folk tradition and the production of local plays. The opening of the University of the West Indies in 1947 was a critical factor in the increase in writing and publication of plays by Anglophone West Indians. The production of local plays expanded exponentially during the 1950s: writers included Cicely Waite-Smith, Barry Reckord, Samuel Hillary in Jamaica; Douglas Archibald, Errol Hill, and Errol John in Trinidad; Derek Walcott and twin brother Roddy Walcott in Saint Lucia; Frank Pilgrim and Sheik Sadeek in Guyana. The most internationally successful of this group was Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, whose early plays such as Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967) and Pantomime (1980) merged the language of poetry with a condemnation of colonialism and racism. Walcott also founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, a group that was instrumental in bringing to the stage patois—a dialect mixing European and African languages that was, for many, the everyday language in this part of the Caribbean.Also during the 1950s Louise Bennett of Jamaica was fundamental in the development of a style that came to be known as “speech theater.” Integrating storytelling techniques with stage theater, she helped validate traditional Afro-Caribbean cultural forms such as the already mentioned Anancy story. Later dramatists such as Paul Keens-Douglas were influenced by her groundbreaking work.Bennett combined drama with social organizing by working with villages to help identify their needs and solve them. This kind of work was taken up by the Sistren Collective, founded in 1977. Led by director Honor Ford-Smith, the theater's first major production was “Bellywoman Bangarang” in 1978, which used experiences drawn from working-class women's lives, as well as games, songs, and dances. Sistren Collective has been instrumental in recuperating the history of women's contribution to Afro-Caribbean struggles: the play Nana Yah was about the seventeenth-century slave maroon leader Nanny. The Sistren Collective, which published Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican Women in 1986, has been an important role model in a Caribbean theater world that remains dominated by male playwrights. It continues to promote grassroots cultural expression, social change, and awareness of gender issues in Jamaica.See also Afro-Brazilian Culture; Afro-Latin American and Afro-Carbbean Identity: An Interpretation; Afro-Latino Cultures in the United States; Catholic Church in Latin America and the Caribbean; Colonial Latin America and the Caribbean; East Indian Communities in the Caribbean; Latin America and the Caribbean, Blacks in; Theater, African; Trinidad and Tobago.

Reference Entry.  2671 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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