Sullivan Walker: Growing Up in Trinidad Arts On Sunday
Stabroek News
March 3, 2002

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Growing up in the West Indies is a common theme explored by many of the Caribbean's well known fiction writers and this exploration has produced a few of the region's great novels. The writers have particularly articulated treatments of growing up under colonialism, a strategy that they have repeatedly used to tackle such issues as education, history and politics. Some of the more recent authors have employed this strategy to interrogate further, more localized issues as well, including peculiar or significant cultural practices/characteristics, contemporary processes of socialization, the oral traditions and superstitions.

These preoccupations that have helped to shape West Indian literature have also been favourite subjects for theatrical performers, especially those like Paul Keens-Douglas, Ken Corsbie and Marc Matthews who have done one-man shows. Such actors have made a major theatrical, if not a literary, form out of these studies whose prospects for humour they have rewardingly exploited. The many re-visits have included reminiscences of old traditional practices which now appear quaint or laughable to a contemporary audience because of their distancing by the passage of time.

While Keens-Douglas became a master of microscoping the laughable follies of current social life and folklore superstitions, Matthews made equally entertaining yet mind-provoking studies of colourful Guyanese customs now outgrown or passed over by new developments. Several members of the audience can relate to many of these with a sense of how funny it is to think that they used to believe in those things or behave that way. These preoccupations have even served as cathartic outlets for the performers themselves. Among the best in this form is Corsbie's autobiographical script, performed recently at the Sidewalk Café.

This brand of theatre was revisited yet again when veteran actor, Trinidad born Sullivan Walker, performed Boy Days at the Ocean View Convention Centre a week ago. The show was a production of the Guyana Rugby Football Union led by Kit Nascimento and GEMS Inc., a new combination on the local stage. The one-man performance took Walker back on the familiar nostalgic memory trip anchored on growing up in Trinidad through the pains and laughter of childhood and adolescent exploits, embarrassments, tricks and outrages.

Walker's employment of the usual dramatic monologues and masques showed that he has not outgrown this West Indian style of acting and language as he made convincing connections with the lifestyles, mores, traditions and theatre of the region. He was at home on this stage despite his long career in the United States of America. It is from there that he became known to Caribbean audiences through American TV including the Cosby Show and such Hollywood movies as Crocodile Dundee, The Firm and The Exterminator. He has also appeared on Broadway, most recently in August Wilson's Two Trains Running.

Walker's return to the Caribbean took the convenient retrospective form. It is the first production under the name of General Executive Management Services which is directed by Gem Madhoo Nascimento. She is already famous for her work in The Theatre Company which she took to its highest points. Already the new production unit has gained from her considerable expertise in the management of this show produced for the Rugby Union.

The most significant feature of Boy Days is the professional piece of theatre into which it was packaged and presented. It was performed on a makeshift, moveable stage constructed for the occasion, transforming the open Ocean View hall into an effective, efficient theatre. there was a neat and appropriate set which supported a performance skillfully stage-managed by New York based veteran, Guyana born actor, Ron Bobb-Semple. Lighting and sound by Kirk Noel and Ansford Patrick also gave remarkable support to a well polished product. The whole achievement demonstrated what can be done in the modern theatre with moveable, temporary material and is very instructive about future possibilities for the producers-directors who have fled from the discouraging problem-plagued National Cultural Centre. But this is not surprising, given the involvement of Mrs. Madhoo Nascimento, who is among the few truly professional and knowledgeable practitioners left in the Guyanese theatre.

Against that backdrop, Sullivan Walker gave an account of himself as an undoubtedly competent actor, though not a profound one. He is very experienced, articulate and assured with strong projection of a voice that is his greatest asset. Yet his range seemed restricted, not always quite reaching some necessary soft subtleties. Nonetheless, even without that great variety he very well communicated the continuum from pathos to humour, although his tendency was towards humour.

Despite all that artillery, however, Boy Days did not offer anything new. As indicated in the paragraphs above, this kind of trip into the 'salad days' of folly, awkward experimentation and the ridiculous has been made many times before in a greater variety of ways. 'Dem Two' and 'All A We' did it excellently, and even afterwards, Corsbie and Matthews pursued it separately while it was still fresh, and many of Keens-Douglas' pieces follow the trend. Mr. Walker did not have anything else to add.

His main aim was entertainment, just a bit blunted by the lack of freshness and by predictability. Among the more substantial pieces was an episode involving the boy at school humiliated by the teacher for being five minutes late. The piece reflected the contempt for a boy from a poor home which is characteristic of the social class conflict common in colonial schools. It had more impact in terms of statement than the others although it was not the funniest.

It is no wonder that the best moments in the performance came from outside of the "boy days" theme. There was a carnival sequence in the latter part poking fun at a masked carnival reveler who was raped by nine women, but it really came good in the dramatic monologue in the police station that followed. This had good satirical treatment of the ridiculous behaviour of some persons who call in to the station as well as the attitude of the bored and harrassed officer on duty at the desk. This treatment was effective and funny.

The piece de resistance was the final episode in which Walker really showed his control of the dramatic monologue. It was quite a worthy take-off on social traditions when the son is about to leave by plane to study abroad. Walker played the father whose bravado and exaggerated nonchalance hides the fact that he is consumed by sadness at the parting. He brought the whole scene to life, with absent and silent characters almost coming to reality on the stage. As an actor, he achieved the many reactions to their follies and the quick mood changes that they induce. Those were Walker's best moments of characterization, variety and sensitivity for the whole show.

The production extended a ray of hope for theatre in Guyana, restoring some faith and probably bringing back an audience that had given it up. Once again, the potential for alternative venues was established in order to keep theatre going following the recent wholesale disenchantment with the National Cultural Centre.