Kingston is the cultural capital of the anglophone Caribbean
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
March 18, 2007
Declarations like these are never straightforward or unproblematic and there is always a considerable and persuasive challenge from Port-of-Spain, but Kingston is still regarded as the cultural capital of the English-speaking Caribbean. Even when the wider region including the Spanish, French and Dutch is taken into consideration, the only other outstanding competitor is Havana. Some cities like Port-au-Prince have great strength in particular areas, but one of Kingston's most significant strengths is the theatre. Yet theatre is not even its strongest point, coming after the world-conquering music and culture of the diversified reggae tradition.
Two factors contribute to this significant strength. The Jamaican theatre has produced some great institutions and the Jamaican theatre has been supported by some great institutions. One of these is the acclaimed NDTC (the National Dance Theatre Company). Founded in 1962, the same year as Jamaica's independence, it has developed stride for stride with the nation, becoming not only its foundation in dance, but the leading company in the Caribbean. Because of this distinguished institution, others developed which drove further development and sustained the theatre.
The Jamaica School of Dance is perhaps the most important of these. It was established by some of the leading members of the NDTC and it has both drawn from and fed the company ever since. NDTC members have been tutors and administrators; dancers and choreographers have been trained, and at least five or six other strong companies have grown out of both the NDTC and the school. With support from the government this Jamaica School of Dance was incorporated into the Cultural Training Centre (CTC), which was established in 1975. The CTC amalgamated three already existing national colleges - the long established School of Music and School of Art, the then fairly new School of Drama, and the Dance School.
The CTC was later re-named The Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts and developed Bachelor of Arts degrees (the BFA) in Art, Music and Drama. It has trained students from right across the Caribbean and was, for some time, the Mecca for such training in the whole of Caricom. More recently, there has been rapid escalation in the creation of similar training, particularly in art and theatre, in Trinidad. This is coming out of expanded programmes at UWI, St Augustine Campus where a Creative Arts Centre developed. That extended into Creative and Festival Arts to take in various traditions especially Carnival, and programmes in the Management of the Arts.
This development in Trinidad, however, followed the long establishment of another of the important contributors to Jamaica's leadership in theatre: viz, the Creative Arts Centre at UWI, Mona Campus. Created in 1967, the CAC has been responsible for training, research and support projects in the arts in addition to providing theatre for performances. The CAC theatre has been one of the most prestigious and reputable in Kingston with a traditional emphasis on artistry while the commercial theatre was developing in Jamaica, allowing the retention of classical and experimental drama, although it still served as a going commercial venue. It was also a centre for dance and literature with a strong Music Unit and, to a lesser extent, a facility for the fine arts. The CAC has since been re-named The Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts and has inspired the creation of the centre in Trinidad, as well as the just completed (2006) Creative Arts Centre at the UWI Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.
The provision of further training in theatre was also one of the outcomes of the work of another institution that has provided significant foundation for much of the drama in Jamaica. The Little Theatre Movement (LTM) is the oldest company of its kind in the country. It built the Little Theatre early in the 1960s to house its headquarters and provide a venue for performance - another prestigious stage with a proud history and tradition. But the LTM was also instrumental in the founding of the Jamaica School of Drama, supported by the government and first set up for its classes on the same premises as the Little Theatre and the School of Dance.
Training and development of a less formal kind was, additionally, nurtured there. The Inter-Secondary Schools Drama Festival was held annually on the Little Theatre stage, attracting productions and a keen sense of rivalry among most of the leading schools. All of that meant drama was on the curriculum and the agenda of the schools, whose students were taught to take it seriously. Without doubt, theatre benefited at the national level from the interest and activity on this platform.
The LTM, however, is better known for its association with yet another great institution: the Jamaica Pantomime. The annual 'LTM Pantomime Musical' is indeed the oldest surviving tradition on the Jamaican stage. It started in 1942 and has not missed a year. Its origins are English, but it was soon adapted to include Jamaican folklore, traditions and history. At present it has graduated to its own form and structure, local music, topical issues, satire and commentary on contemporary society. The musical comedy, strong in humour, dance and colour, opens each year on Boxing Day and runs for up to five or six months.
There are still more institutions that have helped to sustain the theatre. Another of these has been the annual Jamaica Festival, established in 1962 for Independence celebrations on August 6. One of the strengths of this festival is that it set about incorporating an accumulation of almost all the arts of the island, literature, drama, music, dance, elocution, traditional acts and the visual arts. A virtual drama festival was included in which various productions and performances were adjudicated and awards presented. In the past the interest and additional activity that these generated certainly propelled and fortified the theatre.
An impressive range of activity had been possible because the country has a recent history of several theatre groups and companies, both amateur and professional, and many alternative theatres and performance venues. These have included Jamaica Playhouse, LTM, The Jamaica Operatic Society, Caribbean Thespians, University Players, Jamaica Festival Theatre, Ed Wallace Productions, Theatre in Education, the School of Drama and Sistren.
However, none of this means the theatre is all of excellent quality, since there is a variety of types and inclinations. The ascendancy of the commercial theatre led to popular plays which place more importance on the lucrative market than on quality. Today there are several new groups and the commercial theatre is prominent. There is always a variety of popular plays, comedies and roots or dancehall theatre, but alternatives in more serious drama still exist. They make the Kingston theatre circuit by far the busiest in Caricom, with viable choices available through the week. Then the much sought-after Actor Boy Awards for the best of the year in several categories of acting and production provide the icing on the cake and the extra incentive.