Gleaner Honour Award: The Little Theatre Movement: A little, tallawah movement of 75 years
In the middle of December 2015 a cake was cut at the Little Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Drive, St Andrew, to mark a diamond jubilee. It may well have been dubbed the celebration of the successful transformation of a colonial tradition to a Jamaican and regional theatrical institution.
The Little Theatre Movement (LTM) launched its 2015-2016 National Pantomime, Runeesha and the Birds, and it was also a celebration of 75 years of the National Pantomime Christmas tradition.
Henry Fowler and Greta Bourke (later Fowler) founded the LTM and staged the first National Pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, in 1941. ever since then, opening day has remained fixed, while all else has been transformed.
As is stated on the LTM's website: "The Pantomime opened on Boxing Day - December 26 - as was the custom in England. Times have changed, but in Jamaica, Boxing Day remains constant as the opening day for Pantomime. That is perhaps the only thing from the British tradition that has remained unchanged. European folklore has given way to lusty tales of the Caribbean, with dialogue in patois and humour reflecting the robust sense of comedy of these 'islands in the sun'."
stamping Jamaican identity
Since Jack and the Beanstalk, the titles of the annual Boxing Day opening of an acting and music spectacle have been as engaging as the productions themselves. Jack and the Beanstalk was followed by Babes in the Wood. After the consecutive fairytale titles Cinderella (1947), Beauty and the Beast (1948), the 1949 production Bluebeard and Brer Anancy indicated a definite influx of Jamaican identity on the National Pantomime.
Tradition can be hard to break, though, as the 1950 title was Alice in Wonderland. Still, the writing was literally on the wall as after Dick Whittington (1951), Aladdin (1952), and Robinson Crusoe (1953), there were three Anancy titles in a row - Anancy and the Magic Mirror (1954), Anancy and Pandora (1955), and Anancy and Beeny Bud (1956). The decade was rounded out by Busha Bluebeard (1957), Quashie Lady (1958), Jamaica Way (1959), and Carib Gold (1960).
There was no turning back after that.
The Anancy titles came with a name that would come to be perennially associated with the National Pantomime, Louise Bennett, who co-wrote Bluebeard and Brer Anancy with Noel Vaz, who also directed the production.
While Greta Fowler wrote and directed Anancy and the Magic Mirror, Louise Bennett penned the following three National Pantomimes.
Another name also appeared in those early days of writing the 'Panto' - Ranny Williams did Robinson Crusoe, as well as Quashie Lady and Jamaica Way.
Barbara Gloudon, the most prominent public face of the LTM, said that Bennett and Williams "literally led a small revolution". She pointed out that Williams was a Garveyite, while Bennett had her training in England.
The writing credits for the 1963 National Pantomime, Queenie's Daughter, reads like an all-star roster - Greta Fowler, Louise Bennett, Henry Fowler, Ranny Williams, Lois Kelly, and Dennis Scott. It indicates a co-existence of the old and the new. Also, directors who would become staples of Jamaican theatre started appearing - Lloyd Reckord (Finian's Rainbow - 1962) and Rex Nettleford (Morgan's Dream - 1965).
music in the mix
A connection with Jamaican popular music was also concretised. The name of a repeat musical director in the 1950s came with a rank - Major R.G. Jones, the Jamaica Military Band also getting credit on occasion.
By 1961, Banana Boy Carlos Malcolm (whose popular band was Carlos Malcolm and His Afro-Jamaican Rhythms) was in charge of the music, while Sonny Bradshaw (who marshaled the Jamaica Big Band) became head of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians.
Also in the formative Pantomime years, Mapletoft Poulle was responsible for the music at many pantomimes, starting in 1955. He would go on to be part of shaping Jamaica through his contribution to the national anthem.
Other names that would become entrenched in Jamaican culture worked in the National Pantomime - Albert Huie did design for Soliday and the Wicked Bird, while Ivy Baxter handled the choreography of Aladdin (1952), as well as other productions later in the decade.
By 1969, a name that is now synonymous with Pantomime got top billing as Barbara Gloudon did the book and lyrics for Moonshine Anancy that year as she subsequently did again and again, Gloudon crediting Greta Fowler, Ranny Williams, and Louise Bennett especially for her development in the company.
The outstanding Jamaican musicians Harold Butler, Dr Noel Dexter, Peter Ashbourne, Grub Cooper, and Calvin Cameron have all been involved with the National Pantomime.
Gloudon pays special tribute to the musicians over the years, noting that in this season's production, "we have dancehall plus everything in this one".
Dr Brian Heap and the late Wycliffe Bennett and Eddy Thomas have also had extensive involvement in the theatrical tradition.
Along with the insistence on reflecting Jamaican and Caribbean stories came a 'darkening' of the National Pantomime's cast, the dominant hue of the cast now in stark contrast to the white of earliest years.
"Little by little, the colouration and the business of where you draw your culture cues from began to change," Gloudon said.
Naturally, as character changes from imports like Aladdin to Anancy became rooted in the regional imagination, the costumes have grown on the public. Gloudon is especially proud that her daughter, Anya, (who was born at the height of a Pantomime season) has been doing costuming duties with fervour.
The current National Pantomime, Runeesha and the Birds, combines the costumes and currency of issues. As The Gleaner reported from the December launch, "it is the story of a young girl who wants to take part in the upcoming 'limpics'. Training takes her in the path of a colony of local birds such as baldpates and parrots. The cow birds enter the picture, with chaotic results. Barbara Gloudon said that the script has no bearing on the Pantomime's anniversary but is a return to nature. The cast was taken to the hills to observe birds and their behaviour."
From those hills and fields to the stage, the LTM will claim its place on The Gleaner's list of honorees in a more placid setting.
Gloudon is pleased, noting that The Gleaner has been a long-standing supporter of the LTM, including contributing to funding the Little Theatre. And, she emphasises, the award "is not about me. Is about a whole heap a we".