The show must go on Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
Stabroek News
February 15, 2004

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Judging from the turnout at the Cultural Centre last Tuesday evening, many patrons who had abandoned the local theatre in Guyana were eager to return to see a top-class performance from a reputable international storyteller. What they got was not quite what was expected.

The United States Embassy, with assistance from GEMS Theatre, planned to present Rage is Not A One Day Thing by Awele Makeba in honour of Black History Month. Ms Makeba, an internationally known storyteller, was expected to perform her 'untaught history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott' as well as other excerpts from American history, and give two workshops at the University of Guyana. Unfortunately, a sudden emergency kept her home, but the theatre date was not cancelled; the embassy's response was, "Let's get on with the show." There is a noble Broadway show business tradition that says no matter what, the show must go on. It holds the performance as a sacred contract with the audience and that is why 'show people,' even in the face of adversity, have to hide it and perform. "They smile when they are low." So, in order not to disappoint the eager audience, the Americans quickly found a replacement.

Although at very short notice, another Black American storyteller, Caroliese Frink Reed, came in Ms Makeba's stead. Sister Frink Reed conducted two workshops, one at the Berbice campus of UG and the other on the Turkeyen campus where she had a very large group drawn from secondary schools, trainee teachers and UG students. She then performed Rhythm and Rap - Storytelling in the African Tradition, featuring tales she had collected and her own creations at the Cultural Centre on Tuesday evening. After a welcome by US Ambassador Roland Bullen, the fabled griotte took to the stage and all should have been happy, but it was then that the real disappointment began.

There is a very strong and exciting African tradition of storytelling that has been inherited by both the USA and the Caribbean. It is as much instructive as it is entertaining and involves the very functional role of the griots, who, in some traditional societies, had the task of preserving the history of their people or their community by performing it in narrative form. The stories they told allowed the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next, using the oral tradition. Sister Frink Reed is a storyteller who has shaped her performances in this mode and is therefore known as a griotte. She takes aspects of the black experience including slavery and its heritage along with the American cosmology and shapes them into stories for the instruction of her audience.

Rhythm and Rap - Storytelling in the African Tradition was therefore designed to be a cultural lesson. This is quite in keeping with her interest in teaching and her mission to broadcast the gospel according to Black American culture. They included fables, history, rap, tales out of slavery and stories with the flavour of the Blues. But the disappointment hung in the gap between the expectation and the performance.

There was really neither rap nor rhythm. Frink Reed lacked both the brazen aggression of the rap and the dramatic excitement of the traditional rhythms. The audience had come to expect something of the theatrical depth known to exist in the abundant talent in the field of dramatic narratives in America and even in the Caribbean. But what was delivered was more of a classroom experience presented by a performer, as it appeared, accustomed to telling stories to children. Both the tales and their delivery lacked robustness, and were sterile and tepid.

Clearly, the self-styled griotte had the right idea and maintained true artistic relevance to the theme of the occasion (ie Black History Month). The pieces were quite neatly designed generally, but also with the additional artistic neatness of being appropriate to the theatrical tradition on which Frink Reed's style is modelled. Each piece contained something of the culture with an attempt to bridge the past and the contemporary. She tried a continuum from slavery and the old African vestiges to the modern rap culture. The way all of this was packaged was indeed instructive and worthy of note.

But it wasn't very entertaining. Stories were told, not performed with any effective dramatization or lively sense of theatre. The pieces were learned and recited with very little dynamic interaction between actress and audience. The circuit of live communication was missing. Because the scripts were learned and delivered in a rather studied way, which included the blocking and the movement, Sister Frink Reed failed to move, stir or inspire the audience. She lectured to them. When she did throw a question or two to the audience, a device known in the Caribbean, it broke her rhythm when she got an answer. Surprisingly, a responding audience did not seem to be a part of her script, and what is normally a rousing moment in storytelling was halting and uncertain if not slightly embarrassing.

Even though this show might not have lived up to expectations, it remains an excellent idea for foreign missions to continue bringing performers from their home countries to Guyana. The Guyanese audience is literally starved of this kind of exposure and the Americans, who have brought performers before, may want to increase the frequency of these shows. Other contributions have been made by the Brazilians, the British, the Indians and the Chinese in very recent times. However, there is an added benefit to this American event. Proceeds from Caroliese Frink Reed's performance will be handed over to the Creative Theatre Movement (CTM), an organization formed in 1995 by Guyanese actress Mignon Lowe, now located at the Diamond Community Centre. CTM has a mission to "better the living standards of residents of the East Bank Demerara." Among other community projects, it trains children between four and 16 in the performing arts. Funds will be used by CTM to "raise hope and self esteem" among them "by teaching them that they can learn, teach, entertain and be a force for social change through dramatic storytelling." It is a very worthy cause.

By Guyanese standards, the Rhythm and Rap show was brief, not having the long-windedness of performances in these parts. After two neat segments separated by an intermission, the actress took her bow before a polite audience who did not bother her for a curtain call. Several persons in the auditorium have stayed away from the local theatre for years because they were unimpressed by the quality. It is not known whether they have now decided to prolong their exile.