Tue | Jan 22, 2019

Scott's 'Echo' continues

Published:Friday | September 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Rawle Gibbons
Captives on a slave ship in 'An Echo in the Bone'. Photos by Michael Reckord

This is the first in a two-part article on Caribbean theatre as seen by Trinidadian theatre practitioner Rawle Gibbons. Part Two appears next Friday.

Dennis Scott's An Echo in the Bone (1970) is often revived. The play was linked to America's 1960s Black Power Movement by Trinidadian playwright, director and University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer Rawle Gibbons in a talk he gave at a theatre conference in Paris, France, last November.

Said Gibbons: "Even though Black Power may have failed politically and may have had dubious results in terms of longevity, culturally and aesthetically it has had a lasting impact in the Caribbean, beginning from the late '60s and early '70s."

"That impact, in terms of the arts, has been the movement away from realism and the replacement of realism with forms from African-Caribbean traditions. There was, too, the awakening of the history, an unvoiced history, of the African in the Caribbean and, fourthly, (the rise of) an anti-imperialist politics," Gibbons said.

"An Echo in the Bone was a product of that experience. Essentially, the form with which it deals is the 'wake' or nine night, the celebration of the easing of the passage from one stage of existence to the next. There is no death as such; there is transition. The wake is about that transition, both in terms of the passage of spirit and, for the living, the journey to resolution," Gibbons said.

"What Scott does, which had not been done previously, is to employ that wake tradition as dramatic form ... . In so doing, he disrupts the conventional notion of the unities - the unities of time, of place, the unity of action, of character. The plot is non-linear, criss-crossing time and place; characters are historical archetypes, yet fragmented through time."

Gibbons continued: "Most important for us, in terms of theatre, is that the play utilises the phenomenon of spirit possession and is very much about the possibilities the form and the mechanism of possession allow us to use in creating our theatre."

Gibbons went on to speak of the play's "seminal impact" on his own work and that of other Caribbean and Jamaican theatre practitioners, including Earl Warner, Eugene Williams and Honor Ford-Smith.

I asked Gibbons about his decade-long stay (cumulatively) in Jamaica. It was as a literature student on the UWI's Mona campus that he was introduced to what became his life's work, theatre. At Mona, he met theatre enthusiasts like Al Creighton, Jim Nelson and Keith Noel and took part in the the Tallawah Drama Competition.

"Immediately after that," Gibbons recalled, "Lloyd Reckord asked me to act in Barry Reckord's play In the Beautiful Caribbean. That was my first exposure to theatre outside of campus. I knew by then I wanted to direct, not act."

Another significant event for him at Mona was a Caribbean Literature conference at which Prof Errol Hill gave the feature address. Gibbons regards the lecture as "a turning point" for him. "It showed me what theatre could do, what I wanted to do," he said.

rich period theatrically

During what he called a very rich period theatrically, Gibbons was among the students of the Creative Arts Centre's head, Noel Vaz, who taught the institution's first theatre course, Theatre Styles. In his second year, Scott came on campus to direct No Rain, No Play by St Lucian playwright Stanley Ffrench.

"Derek Walcott was doing (directing his play) In a Fine Castle about that time," Gibbons continued. "Carroll Dawes came on to the campus to direct Man Better Man. Tony Smith (another undergraduate) and I were assistant directors in that production and we learnt a great deal from Dr Dawes. It was a very rich period theatrically."

Back home and pursuing post-graduate studies, Gibbons did an MPhil in Cultural Research, looking at cultural enactments in the Caribbean, Carnival included, examining the make-up of the region's theatre.

"That study has informed all my work since," he said.

He returned to Jamaica in 1979 at the request of Scott, then director of the School of Drama, to develop its directing programme. Gibbons was "kind of annoyed" when Scott asked him to direct Shakespeare's The Tempest. "I thought, 'I come here to do Caribbean theatre and this man give me Tempest.' But I did it in the way I could do it, as a thoroughly Caribbean experience."

"Actors like Bello and Blacka (Winston Bell and Owen Ellis) were in class at the time and I remember we used a carnivalesque interpretation of the play, with the music of Winifred Atwell, the Trinidadian pianist. People enjoyed it."

The second "phenomenal thing" for Gibbons that year was the production of his play Shepherd, which he had written in Trinidad and Scott had 'dramaturged' after a public reading. After the Drama School production, directed by Scott, in 1981 it was taken to Carifesta in Barbados with a strong team of actors from Jamaica.

Gibbons in turn directed Scott's Dog which, Gibbons revealed, Scott had written while staying with him in Trinidad about 1977. "He sat down in the week or two that he was there and just wrote it," Gibbons said. "He had it all in his head. There was no draft or anything. And he had a reading with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop people. It sounded okay, but I had no idea (then) what the play was about."

Next week: Gibbons speaks of contemporary theatre in Trinidad & Tobago.