Bully sees theatre change
In this second of a two part article, Alwin Bully, a leading Caribbean theatre practitioner, continues his critique of theatre in his native Dominica. Pt 1 was published last Friday.
One of Dominica's top-three theatre groups is Teat Pawol ('Spoken Theatre'), Alwin Bully told me in our recent interview. It is run by Alex Bruno, a radio personality and calypsonian who started writing for the theatre about 10 years ago and has been producing and directing almost a play a year.
"He has lofty themes," Bully continued. "His first hit play was As We Were, which looks back on some of Dominica's dying traditions. He wrote something on the Maroons, Neg Mawon, and then Ma Pampo, about a Dominican woman who lived to the age of 127. She was the oldest woman on earth, as shown by her baptismal certificate."
Bruno also wrote The Dread Act, about an Act of Parliament passed about "dreads" (not Rastafarians) who went into the hills and there was conflict between them and the police. The act stated that dreads trespassing on private property could be shot by the owner. "But in recent years, Bruno's been writing comedies, Man Can Lie and Woman Can Lie, parts one and two," Bully said.
He also mentioned actor/director/dancer Mikel Ferrol as an up-and-coming theatre practitioner. Ferrol had been working with his group, North Star Theatre Company, before recently going off to the United States to study theatre.
Asked whether contemporary Dominican theatre is different from theatre of the last half of the 20th Century, Bully answered "absolutely." He said that theatre began "seriously" in Dominica in 1964, when students from four secondary schools came together to do The Merchant of Venice for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. The group enjoyed the experience so much that they stayed together to take part in Secondary Schools Drama Society productions.
"I remember directing (for the group) a musical, Meet Arizona, when I was 17 or 18," Bully said. "It was my first attempt at directing a big musical. We did two more Shakespeare plays after that and, after most of us left school, the group became The Little Theatre Movement."
In the early 1970s, when Bully returned from studies at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), he and his cousin, Daniel Caudieron, changed the name to The People's Action Theatre and "developed a political approach to change and transformation" through the plays they produced. The first play, by Caudieron, was Speak Brother Speak, about young people on the street corners rebelling against society. Not long after, Caudieron migrated to Canada and Bully was left to run the group.
His first play, Streak, thematically about the arrival of Rastafarianism in the Eastern Caribbean, was based on the case of a man (Desmond Trotter) who was accused of shooting a white man during carnival. A huge success in Dominica, the play was later taken to St Lucia and Barbados, where it played to sold-out houses.
Bully wrote and produced hit after hit in the '70s and '80s, with Streak being followed by The Nite Box, The Ruler, and then Green Gold, one of four radio serials he wrote. He also wrote a folk musical for the Independence Celebration of 1978, then a Christmas musical which is still performed almost every Christmas.
Though full of humour, the group's work had a serious base, Bully emphasised. "Serious issues were being raised all the time. We knew we had a mission to educate the audience so, from '72 to '82, every play got a little more serious. We were systematically educating the audience, writing the plays very carefully, so that the language got more and more sophisticated, the issues deeper."
The process worked. Bully knew this because of the audiences' negative response to lighter plays produced. However, when he went back home in 2008, having been in Jamaica for 20 years working as the UNESCO adviser on culture in the Caribbean, it was to find that "today the Dominican theatre is much lighter, with not much depth to it".
Bully returned with a broader vision for a regional theatre company, he said, adding "I've been doing plays under the name Caribbean Theatre Network, some of them in association with People's Action Theatre." Plays that he has directed in recent years include Lionheart Sister (about the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole) for the nurse's association; David Heron's Ecstasy; and Aime Cesaire's Une Tempete for the small theatre group La Cour Des Arts.
Convinced about the transformative power of theatre, Bully believes that Caribbean plays should be developmental.
"What I advocate," he said, "is that as developing Caribbean people we don't have much time for frivolity and we should create our art for development as much as possible. That doesn't mean you can't do a comedy or even a farce, but there should be an underlying message in there which the audience always picks up, to know what should or should not be happening in our society."
"Caribbean plays should serve the development of our society, whichever genre it is in - carnivalesque, serious drama, comedy or social drama. Generally speaking, there should be more focus on serious work. We have the comedies already and there should be variety at all times."