Trinidad Talk Tent: Impressive alternative theatre
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
July 18, 2004
Some of the Trinidad Talk tent performers: From left to right: Miguel Brown, Felix Edinborough, Paul Keens Douglas and Llewlyn McIntosh. (Stabroek News file photo)
A few items have recently appeared on the Guyanese stage, which give the impression that there are more alternative types of theatre than the country has seen for many years. One of the most successful of these was the Trinidad Talk Tent, which claimed to bring a sample of Carnival to Guyana and highlighted a few well known performers from the 'twin island republic'.
The production had a truly overwhelming response from the local audience, filling the Cultural Centre and ringing a note of irony. Multitudes of patrons who have stopped going to see local plays turned up to see something different.
They were certainly satisfied, but what was ironic was that we had a mainly middle-class audience turning up in great numbers to see theatre from a solidly working-class tradition, since the tents of the past were performed by working-class artistes to entertain working-class audiences. The Talk Tent attracted the middle class while the working class, who patronize the popular plays, largely stayed away.
The Talk Tent as we now know it might be a relatively recent development, but it is the vestige and the virtual revival of a very old tradition that takes us back more than a century. The "tent" phenomenon itself goes back even further. Many traditional theatrical events and performances took place in make-shift tents in previous centuries and the term "tent" became used not only for the place where calypsos were performed, but for the performance event itself. A contemporary Calypso Tent may be pitched anywhere, even in a sophisticated modern auditorium. The Tent is now the organization, the company, the production unit, usage having gone well beyond the venue or the performance. Tent activities have also transcended the calypso, and have included other acts since early in the twentieth century. The word "tent" was not always used, but it has always been the same type of activity that has been called "vaudeville", "band practice" and even "séance" in a St Lucian La Rose setting. The cinema houses used to be a popular venue for these, right up to the 1970s.
The Trinidad Talk Tent that returned to Guyana's National Cultural Centre recently was also a return to some of these traditions, though reflecting the contemporary version of the phenomenon. It focused, as the name suggests, on the speech event, with comedy, satire and social commentary the main ingredients. These were included in the earlier shows, but they also had other kinds of performances, while the main difference between the talk tent and the calypso tent lies in the element of music.
There was a series of talk tents in Barbados in the 1980s, mainly consisting of comedians doing stand-up routines. Similar shows have been seen in Guyana, some of them described as Caribbean Comedy Festivals with varying degrees of success, but more recent talk tents have come up with more decorative and structural ideas to make the production more than just a collection of stand-up comedy routines.
The Trinidad Talk Tent produced by GEMS Theatre, managed by Gem Madhoo-Nascimento and directed by Paul Keens-Douglas was of the more structured variety.
It tried to relive a few of the old and extinct acts of past Trinidad Carnivals, included pieces other than talk and used a singing MC. This device comes out of the carnival influence and was used in the series of Storytelling Festivals held at the Frank Collymore Hall in Barbados in the mid 1990s. They used an old-styled string band and a singing chorus to introduce each performer.
Keens-Douglas did much the same, using The Mighty Rebel, many times Calypso King of Guyana, as the Chantwel MC performing the choric function. Rebel did very well in this capacity, expertly managing the Santi Manitée (sans humanité) styled biographical verses to introduce and see off each performer. He even commanded the role usually played by the calypso tent MCs, throwing in his own comic anecdotes during the interludes. However, one cannot make the same favourable comments about his solo item, which broke the "talk" character of the show. He sang a calypso, which was obviously nowhere near his best and fell deservedly flat.
Another famous calypsonian, Short Pants of Trinidad, showed no hint of flatness. He is renowned for his humour as well as for using the calypso for education and moral commentary in keeping with his other profession as a schoolteacher.
He is good at extempore and proved that in his quick repartee with the audience, who asked how come he appeared on stage in long pants. His response was that he did come prepared to perform in short pants, but attacks from the Guyanese mosquitoes soon put a stop to that. Short Pants simply spoke the words of a selection of his songs, but if he did not say at the beginning that that is what he was doing, those who did not recognize the words might have felt he was performing compositions written to be recited. Nothing was lost by the removal of the music as they were expertly performed as talk pieces. In one of these, he gave Derek Walcott a thorough telling-off for disparaging remarks made about the character of Trinidad, while in another, he satirized the Trinidadian football team.
The most telling vestige of old carnival, however, was the performance of Felix Edinboro as the Pierrot. The Pierrot Grenade, after having disappeared from the streets of Port of Spain at carnival time decades ago, reappeared on the Cultural Centre stage. Edinboro recreated the character of the colourful masquer in his usual linguistic performance, "spelling" difficult words by punning on their sound and telling stories. Wit, humour and commentary were the hallmarks, but other aspects of the traditional performance, such as the violent confrontations with other Pierrots, could not have been reproduced.
Paul Keens-Douglas remained the main attraction, and did not disappoint. He has been sensitive enough to introduce variations in his routine over his many years as a successful performer. He has gone through different styles and contents.
These include storytelling, the use of folklore, performance poetry, stand-up comedy and satirical commentary. At the Talk Tent he performed extracts from his latest CDs, but, judiciously, he abridged the pieces. This took nothing away from the force of the humour and its impact on an audience who showed their full appreciation for memorable entertainment. Because of his recordings and publications, there are several old popular favourites in Keens-Douglas' repertoire, but he knew how to manage his selections and maintain command of his live audience. The Talk Tent was a complete production despite the fact that there was this main event. It was sufficiently well organized to let the audience have as much of Keens-Douglas as they wanted, but that they were able to appreciate other performances that were just as good.