Till I Dance with my PeopleThe enigma of tradition
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
October 17, 2004
The re-emerging Guyanese theatre discovered a further interesting dimension recently when another visiting production was staged at the National Cultural Centre (NCC). It was a new full-length play brought to Guyana by a New York-based group called Nirvana Humanitarian Foundation Inc, with a mandate "to promote the Indo-Caribbean art forms" especially music, dance and drama in the Queens community. Similar attempts to advance Indian drama are not unknown in Guyana, going back more than 60 years to the British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS), and to a series of Neaz Subhan productions just over a decade ago. All these connections were pulled together when the New York organization brought a company of "exiles" including second- generation descendants to rediscover their roots with a Guyanese play.
Its title is quite a mouthful, Till I Dance With My People I've Never Danced Before, (and that's only the short part); its director, Mahadeo Shivraj, was a leading actor in Guyana before moving to extend his career in both acting and directing in New York. It was written by Guyanese-born Sharda Shakti Singh, who grew up in New York and took advantage of her privileged position "standing between two worlds" to produce the drama. These various forces and efforts converged to bring the work from the Indian Guyanese diaspora in Queens, New York, to the Georgetown audience.
It turned out to be a very significant production, which allowed the discovery of an important new Guyanese play written by a new Guyanese dramatist who, from the evidence of this work, is possessed of considerable talent. The title is not inspiring, but the play was. It was commendable in its artistic concerns, themes, structure and in its production. The title, Till I Danced With My People I've Never Danced Before: A Young Guyanese American Rediscovers Her Roots, is decidedly awkward and just a trifle pompous; a good editor would have gone after it with a chopper, a file and a tin of polish. But it sums up exactly what statement the playwright wants to make, her most pervasive motif in the use of dance, the essence of the plot, the dilemma and the rescue of the heroine, and the cultural state of Indian descendants in Guyana and the USA.
It is a significant achievement in Guya-nese drama for a number of reasons. It is an advancement upon some of the previous efforts in East Indian drama in Guyana. The BGDS was concerned with India, not Guyana, while Sharda Shakti Singh's work goes much further than Subhan's efforts at imitation and adaptation did. Like Sheik Sadik, and unlike the BGDS, she explores the real life of the local East Indian village, adding the important dimension of the migrants in New York. That dimension is reminiscent of Paloma Mohamed's New York! New York!
It is a significant new play, as well, because of its far-reaching thematic concerns, which cannot be separated form the way Singh treats them theatrically and the way they were interpreted by the director Mahadeo Shivraj and the other major actors. Singh explains that "from time to time, society should re-evaluate its customs" because of the need to respond to change, and in a play that focuses a brutal, critical searchlight on East Indian traditions among Guyanese at home and in New York, explains that "this play reveals myself - and yourself, stripped and unashamed."
She succeeds in using theatre to do exactly what she says, giving a very critical exposition of the cultural values as well as the anachronistic weaknesses and the savagery of tradition.
Shivraj's production did well in interpreting and communicating these concerns through Singh's dramatic techniques. Humour was used effectively in what turned out to be a delightful comic vision allied with satire, a tragic sense of the human failures of tradition and the emptiness of imitative acculturation.
Till I Dance With My People I've Never Danced Before is the drama of how, as the sub-title indicates, 'A Young Guyanese American Rediscovers Her Roots.' It covers three generations of a Guyanese family from Leonora, tracing them from the 1950s to the present. DebbiAnn Pustam plays Parvati, a young Guyanese-born dancer who grows up in New York, rejecting her roots for shallow Americanisms. While she is rehearsing a superficial choreography for an important dance competition, her father, Navo, played by Shivraj, insists that she accompanies him to the wedding of her cousin Sheila (Seema Tiwari) in Guyana. During the visit she finds herself reconnecting with her forgotten and rejected native roots in the Leonora people, their customs and culture and, through this, finds herself.
A rediscovery of the Indian cultural traditions in Guy-ana causes her to abandon her imitative American identity, and choreograph a new dance informed by her native culture. She returns to New York to win the competition.
Using an effective series of flashbacks and cleverly synchronized scenes, the play integrated the beginnings of the story when Parvati's grandmother fought against an arranged marriage and violent abuse from her father and husband. The theatrical links continued to the present generation when the family celebrates a marriage in which Sheila chooses her own husband and the outcast, Gopal (Shivraj and Travolta Karran), driven to drink and destruction as a victim of tradition, finds love again and is reaccepted into the clan. Parvati's father, who confronts her with logic, love and argument, is a dramatic contrast to his own father (Kishore Seunarine) who was a drunkard and a wife-beater. Nevertheless, he had to overcome his own stubborn prejudice to help give the play its satisfactory ending as a comedy.
Parvati, herself, had to learn to appreciate what was indeed great about a tradition she rightly rejects for its ancient oppressive qualities. On her visit to Guyana her position is fortified by the attitudes of her Aunt Sharma (Parbaty Tejsingh) who can be an independent contemporary woman in that same tradition that has obviously shed some of its oppression. Singh employs the dance as a theatrical vehicle to explore her multiple themes including attitudes to women, self-discovery and identity. She takes the play from the 1950s when a woman was branded a prostitute for wanting to be a dancer, to the 21st century when her grand-daughter wins public glory for her excellence in dance. But to achieve that excellence, Parvati literally had to dance with her people at the wedding to recognize the wholesome qualities of their tradition. The play begins with the telling satire of her shallow disco dance pitted against her rival Vishwattie's equally imitative steps copied from India.
The farce of the situation was finely played by Miss Pustam, Alisha Persaud as Vishwattie and, with admirable comic timing, Radhica Olarte as the Indian dance tutor. Singh, in Naipaulian fashion, ridicules the zeal to mimic Indian culture and a similar obsession with American pop culture, holding it up against the examples of the Indian heritage within the Guyanese village culture.
This was vividly communicated in Shivraj's colourful, realistic set as it was in the characters of Lovin (Persaud) and Ganesh (Ramesh Deochand). The play's style was not always realistic, yet both dramatist and director understood the subtle shifts in what was an all-round satisfactory piece of theatre.