Thu | Dec 8, 2016

A man of many arts

Published:Friday | August 15, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Alwin Bully - Photo by Michael Reckord

This is the first of a two-part article on Alwin Bully.

Calling Alwin Bully a writer and theatre practitioner merely hints at his versatility as a man of the arts.

His work for more than three decades in Carnival and theatre costume design, musical composition, directing, set and lighting design, acting, painting and writing plays, poems, short stories and radio serials has made him one of the region's most important artists.

He is Dominican, but 20 of those 30-plus creative adulthood years were spent in Jamaica. He came here to work in 1987 as the UNESCO Advisor on Culture in the Caribbean. Bully accepted the post in large part because, he said, "I saw Jamaica as the Mecca of Caribbean theatre."

It was an art form he had fallen in love with long before. Bully started directing for the School's Drama Festival from his high-school years and had been following Jamaican theatre even before coming here. He made friends with several major Jamaican theatre practitioners, including playwright/director Dennis Scott, playwright/producer Trevor Rhone, and actress Leonie Forbes.

"I thought Jamaica a good place to utilise my theatre skills, not so much as a writer - I didn't have the time to write much - but as a director and a designer," Bully told me in a recent interview.

The designing he referred to was of not only set and costumes but special effects, like the parting of the Red Sea in one of the many Father HoLung and Friends productions Bully worked with.

Along with the challenges set by the huge HoLung shows, Bully said, he enjoyed "working with very good actors, with people who loved the theatre, with intellectuals" he met in Jamaica. He considered the School of Drama's theatre to be "at the centre of experimentation".

Leading The Company

Included in the important work Bully did while here was leading production organisation The Company Limited (TCL) after the passing of its first head, Earl Warner. "The work that TCL did was rewarding," said Bully, "especially the Sunday morning staged readings in which we were exploring new works by Jamaicans. When we didn't have those, we were exploring interesting plays from different parts of the world and opening up the audience to different styles of theatre - of directing and ways of storytelling."

Also part of Bully's theatrical legacy in Jamaica is his revival of the International Theatre Institute (ITI). Bully led the team overseeing its reawakening and establishment of the annual ITI/Actor Boy Awards for excellence in theatre.

Summing up his stint here as "a great time of growth" for him personally and for Jamaican theatre, Bully turned to the contemporary Dominican theatre scene. "The most important of the groups is the New Dimension Theatre (NDT), which is directed and run by Steve Hyacinth, a graduate of the School of Drama. He's also a permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Security," Bully said.

"The NDT was 40 years old last year (2013). Steve is a prolific writer and sometimes writes and produces three full-length plays a year. The company has about 30 people, who meet regularly, and he takes on new people from time to time."

Bully said that Hyacinth directs and produces his own plays - a mixture of comedies and social commentaries - with the assistance of his wife and two daughters. "They do some touring in the islands, to St Vincent, Antigua and St Kitts," Bully said.'

He said that, since returning to Dominica in 2008, he has been doing more directing than writing. The one play Bully wrote was for the 50th anniversary of the Nurses' Association. "They approached me with a play, The White Angel, about Florence Nightingale, and I asked if they knew there was a black angel. They said no. I asked if they knew of Mary Seacole (the Jamaican nurse). They said no. I was surprised," Bully said.

That discussion led to his writing a long one-act play for the association, about a contemporary nurse reading about Mary Seacole, who subsequently comes alive and takes the nurse to some of the places where she worked, including Panama and Crimea. Bully produced and directed the play, which got a very good reception.

Working with a prodigy

Another play which Bully directed was The Story of Slavery Pt 2 by 11-year-old Giselle Pierre, whom he calls a prodigy. Not only has she been writing since she was nine, he said, but she wrote and published a book about her experiences in primary school, created a foundation for helping disadvantaged youth, designs bands for carnival, and organises the involvement of children in them, organises floats and is a puppeteer and composer.

Giselle and her mother asked Bully to produce and direct a play that Giselle wrote about an older man having illicit love affairs with young girls. That's what's happening, they said, so they wanted it staged in schools. Bully thought it inappropriate and asked Giselle to write something more child-friendly.

"She wrote a play called Once Upon a Carnival, a fairy tale type play," he said, "but she's more into serious themes and, the following year, she wrote The Story of Slavery Pt 1. It was amazingly well-written for a 10-year-old. She asked me to direct her next play, The Story of Slavery Pt 2, which I did."

Next week: Alwin Bully continues his look at the theatre scene in Dominica.