On Performance

The recent visits of the Jabulani South Africa Troupe, which was well received by Bahamians in Nassau, Freeport and Harbour Island, and by the Yangzhou Chinese Puppet Troupe has put me in mind of a fundamental, and often overlooked, reality.

Bridges are built by means of performance.

Think about it. Here we had two groups of people from lands far away from our own. They mounted productions that they performed in pubic spaces, and the messages that they got across were understood by many in the crowd. In both cases, they were messages of joy, of pride. The Chinese shared with Bahamian audiences, the vast majority of them in Freeport, their ancient and complex culture, while the South Africans communicated their ride and joy in this their tenth year of democracy.

And we understood them.

Human beings, you see, have a universal language. It’s a language that’s currently underused here in the Bahamas, but it’s rooted so deep within us that we can’t escape it. It’s the language of performance, and it’s the one language that can be understood around the world.

The language of performance is the language of human beings standing up before others and communicating their emotions, their thoughts, their philosophies, by the way they move in space, the way they face their audiences, the way they possess the stage they inhabit. Performance is the place where music, art, movement and literature can come together in such a way that together they communicate to large groups of people. To some degree, music and art and literature on their own are merely objects, commodities, unless they are accompanied by a person who delivers them. CDs, books and paintings, divorcable from their contexts, provide some insight into the people, the societies, that surround their creation. But when that message is delivered by living human beings, then it can be appreciated in its fullness.

Now we Bahamians come from a society and a culture that is fundamentally rooted in performance. Only one generation has passed since children on the Family Islands would be entertained on a nightly or a weekly basis by ol’ story told to them by their elders; not even that long stands between Nassauvians and their traditions of school plays, church hall concerts, recitations and festival performances.

One of the greatest benefits of living in a society of performers is that everyone has the chance to demostrate his or her individuality. In performance, no one is anonymous; everyone is given a chance to express himself or herself, to know he or she is alive. Performance provides individuals with a chance to be noticed, an opportunity to be praised.

You’d think every society would encourage its children to become involved in perfomance activities. But oddly enough, performance no longer seems a priority for the parents and elders of today.

It’s not that people are no longer moved by live performance. The recent successes of the Independence celebrations, of Michael Pintard’s Woman Talk, and of the Jabulani and the Yangzhou troupes, give the lie to that. Even the fact that people are addicted to church services that feature preachers as riveting in their behaviour as any actor, and, at election time, to political rallies, reveals further that we Bahamians respond on a visceral level to orators, actors, dancers, politicians and other performers. But it is equally true that performance is no longer given pride of place in our everyday lives.

This came home to me when the South Africans performed; they often called upon ordinary Bahamians to join them on stage. There was something very remarkable about those who did: they were either Bahamians of a certain age — thirty years old or more — or they were visitors to the islands who came with the intention of leaving inhibitions behind. The few young Bahamians who were pulled into the performance space appeared awkward and shy, and they went through the motions in an agony of self-consciousness that betrayed a longing to return to the anonymity of the crowd.

And where, I ask myself, did this come from? How did we, a nation of natural performers, breed a generation of young people who would rather be invisible than face an audience? And even more important, have we begun to appreciate the level of culture loss that this would seem to imply?

It’s important we recognize that this change is not accidental. First of all, we have closed off all performance arenas. Our churches, which at one time hosted weekly recitations in their halls and required every child to participate, have brought that performance into the sanctuary and have turned services into shows in which only the initiated may participate. Our schools, which once put on regular plays, musicals, talent shows and beauty pageants seem to have deemed such activities frivolous wastes of time and money, and leave them for only special schools to do. Television and electric lights have replaced storytelling ; GameBoy and Nintendo have imposed a world other people imagined onto our youngest and most creative Bahamians. Even Junkanoo has changed. No longer is it acceptable to simply rush in the streets. Instead, young people who want to take part must become parts of large groups where their anonymity and passivity is not challenged.

We have closed every door that affords our children the opportunity to face their fears and express themselves in a positive, public, individual way. We have become a nation of spectators. Our children no longer learn how to perform.

It’s time, I think, for us to reclaim this bit of our culture. It’s time to recognize how fundamental performance is to our self-esteem, and to give it the respect it deserves.