Tag Archives: arts and culture

Creating theatre in Nassau, Bahamas

For those of you who may not know, I do theatre in my spare time.

“Spare” may be a misnomer. “Unassigned” may be a better way of putting it. See, I work for a living because I have to; I need that regular income, and most of all I need that health insurance. I’m a college professor. I’m not dissing that. In fact, I happen to think it’s one of the best jobs in the world. It’s the only job in this country that will pay me to do half of what I love to do, which is write and talk, and that will even include that writing and talking when it comes time for promotion, and at the same time also allow me the flexibility and space to do the other half of what I love to do. I bless the people who dreamed up the College of The Bahamas and I bless those people who made it do all these things.

But if I had my druthers, I’d be working in theatre too.

OK, for those of you who do know me, you’re probably saying to yourself: “But she does work in theatre.”

And you’d be right, after a fashion. After all, I am one of the founders of Ringplay Productions, a theatre company that’s been around for the past 13 years, and I’m the founding director of the Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival.

But nobody pays me to do either. And so I have to do it in spare, or unassigned, or off, time.

Before you ask me, the answer is, yes, I do have a problem with this. I didn’t twenty-five years ago when I started working in Bahamian theatre. In the 1980s, the Bahamas was in its second decade of independence, and had much bigger things to worry about than about providing careers for young artists. I wasn’t raised to pursue such a career, anyway. Even though my father had studied what might well have been the most esoteric thing for a young Bahamian to study at the end of the 1950s—classical piano performance at the Royal Academy of Music, London—my parents brought me up to be employable (my father wasn’t, not in the Bahamas, so a teacher he became). So I did not go to school to study theatre, even though I liked being on stage. I grew up “knowing” that the theatre was something one did for the love of it, despite all odds, and not something one did to make money from. Even though I wanted to write plays I never thought of doing it for a living.

But times change, and people change, and the world changes. In the 1980s we weren’t welcoming five million tourists to the Bahamas and wondering what on earth there was for them to do onshore here. In the 1980s, there were still some things for them to do (although that was the decade when things started to change). There were still cabaret shows in casinos which provided regular jobs for dancers; there were still nightclubs here and there which provided regular jobs for musicians; and there were record stores that bought musicians’ music. Maybe I’m painting too rosy a picture here, but it seems to me that in the 1980s Bahamians liked Bahamian culture.

But we’re not in the 1980s anymore.

It’s the twenty-first century. And if there were every a century in which creativity could flourish, this is it. We live in a time of revolution; publishing and production and filmmaking and composing and making music are in the hands of the creative artists, rather than locked up in boardrooms thousands of miles away in somebody else’s country. And tourism is also changing to reflect this new century. Tourists are not travelling merely for sun, sand and casino winnings. They are looking for unforgettable, unique experiences, and they’re paying premium prices for them. It’s never been a better time to be a creative artist anywhere—

except the Bahamas.

Those of you who know me well may remember that ten years ago this October I took on the position of Director of Cultural Affairs for the Bahamas government. Those of you who know me very well may remember what I was like when I took on that job. I am a happier person now, they tell me. I am not so angry all the time. Not so driven. (I would dispute the second, but WTH). I wasn’t always angry and driven. I took on the job believing, as one does, that I could make a difference. I took on the job to help bring back some focus to the Bahamas and to revive a sense of pride in Bahamian culture. It’s important, I believe, to for individuals to have some things done by the collective around them that they can be proud of, but in 2003 too many Bahamians were behaving as though they were ashamed.

I had no idea I was embarking on a wild and crazy ride that would take me through wildernesses and woodlands, across oceans to different continents, to high heights and even lower depths and bring me back right to where I started.

When I worked out that I had gone full circle, or maybe had made a spiral which brought me back to the same point as I’d started from, only maybe further away from where we wanted to be, I left. And started the theatre festival you see me working with today.

Shakespeare in Paradise is now five years old. We have survived by the grace of God and our own hard, hard work. We have grown and done some work that we’re proud of, and because it’s our fifth year and the fortieth anniversary of independence for this country, we’re taking a big, big risk.

And I have no idea where we’ll be by the end of October. In all honesty, it looks like we’ll be tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

The reason?

We dream too damn big.

We’re reviving Sammie Swain, the folk opera that should be my father’s legacy but is dying because it hasn’t been performed for too long.

Why it hasn’t been performed is a long story which I’m proposing to tell here on this blog. There are some villains in this story, and some heroes too, and the villains and the heroes might not be who you think they are. And it’s all part of a much bigger story, which is still being written, but which so far is shaping up to be a tragedy. I want to tell that story too.

So I called this “creating theatre in Nassau, Bahamas” because I had hoped to get to the theatre part of the story. What you have is just the setting and the backstory. Bad storytelling, but live with it.

We’ll get where we’re going if you stay with the ride.

**Photo by Duke Wells

Nassau, What Happened?

Check this out:

Nassau, What Happened? Is a group project that anyone can contribute to by adding his or her own line to a collective poem about the city of Nassau. It will be part of Transforming Spaces 2012 under the theme of “Fibre”.

Inspired by an exercise by the poetry festival O, Miami, this exercise is designed to bring many voices together at once in order to hint at a larger, complex voice.

via Nassau, What Happened?.

More on the Caribbean Review of Books

Yes, I know I wrote about this before, but I have spent a lot of today reading bits and pieces of the new, improved, online Caribbean Review of Books and I need to write about it again.

Here’s what it has to say about itself:

The Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) is a bimonthly magazine covering Caribbean literature and arts. We focus on reviews of new and recent books of Caribbean fiction, poems, biography, arts, culture, and current affairs, but the CRB also publishes new writing, interviews, and essays on literature and visual arts.

Here’s what it has to say about its history:

The original CRB was published from 1991 to 1994 by the University of the West Indies Publishers’ Association in Mona, Jamaica, and edited by Samuel B. Bandara.

In May 2004, the CRB was revived by a team of writers and editors based at Media and Editorial Projects (MEP) in Port of Spain, Trinidad. In 2007, the CRB was incorporated as a not-for-profit under the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. Our last print quarterly edition was published in 2009. In 2010, the CRB was relaunched as a bimonthly online magazine.

And here’s why you should read it. There’s so much to read! Congratulations to Nicholas for putting together such a rich experience, and providing fertile soil in which Caribbean writing might grow.

The Caribbean Review of Books • A bimonthly review of Caribbean literature, art, and culture

Big congratulations to Nicholas and company for this venture.

I’ll be checking back regularly!

A note to our readers: Welcome to the new website of The Caribbean Review of Books. From May 2004 to May 2009, the CRB published twenty-one quarterly print issues, featuring reviews of books of Caribbean interest, interviews with writers, original fiction and poems, essays on Caribbean art and culture, and artists’ portfolios. In May 2010, the CRB’s sixth anniversary, the magazine has been relaunched as an online publication, offering the same intelligent, incisive coverage of Caribbean literature, art, and culture.

via The Caribbean Review of Books • A bimonthly review of Caribbean literature, art, and culture.

Killing with kindness

We on the arts community in The Bahamas often like to believe that things are different for artists in other Caribbean nations. This blog post from PLEASURE blog suggests that it’s not so:

Tomorrow, the spanking new $518 million National Academy for the Performing Arts around the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, will officially open. But a few blocks away, at the corner of Roberts and White Street, Woodbrook, the historic Little Carib Theatre will remain boarded-up and shut. The restoration of that historic theatre, which was founded by local dance legend Beryl McBurnie in 1947 and which has played a key role in the development of the arts in this country, has stalled for about two years.

The problem? Reportedly a lack of funding, with an additional $2 million needed to complete the restoration not forthcoming from the State. The same State that can pump $2 million into a flag around the crumbling Hasley Crawford Stadium and which can build arts academies apparently at the snap of its fingers.

* P L E A S U R E *: A place for the arts

It sounds all too familiar — white elephants being created by decision makers more interested in showing off, attracting foreign investment, or negotiating cool perks than in building a nation for real. Of course in Trinidad, where oil money confers delusions of splendour, the showing off is of the glitziest kind.

The context: the T&T government has built, with Chinese money, something it is calling its National Academy for the Performing Arts, which is fancy, and which can ensure that the T&T government can have something that can be plastered on glossy magazine pages as evidence that the Caribbean is not home to transplanted savages and native beachbabes clad in Lion of Judah hula skirts and floral arrangements. At the same time, though, as is common with us all in Caribbean societies, the things that have made central contributions to the development of the arts are left to languish, perhaps because they’re not glitzy enough, or because they mean nothing to the philistines who far too ordinarily get themselves elected to positions of power, or because they represent too much competence, outspokenness or creativity for the individuals who have been given charge of the government departments responsible for implementing government’s policies. In Trinidad, the Little Carib Theatre and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop share fates that are not very different from the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts here in The Bahamas, which is being eaten from top to bottom by a very happy army of termites, or from any of the so-called “National” performing arts entities, not one of which has an adequate home:

Examine, for instance, the traumas of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW), once housed at the Old Fire Station Building on Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain. The TTW, whose founder was Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, was housed at that historic building for ten years from 1989 to 1994, when Walcott won the Nobel, and then to 1999.
Yet, after a swanky restoration, and the construction of a National Library around it, the TTW was quickly booted out of the building and left to find accommodation in a small gingerbread house on Jernigham Avenue in Belmont. To date, despite its name, the TTW has no real theatre of its own, with a small space at the house in Belmont acting as a performance area. The Old Fire Station is used for such things as press conferences by the Ministry of Information as well as hosting administrative offices.

There are times, indeed, when I’m thankful for the studied and deliberate contempt paid to Bahamian artists and arts in this country, thankful for the fact that the turn-of-the-century $3 million gift the Chinese government earmarked for our own Centre for the Performing Arts was not spent the way the Chinese wanted it to be spent (i.e. on renovating the NCPA on Shirley Street so that it could actually house performing arts, rather than function as it has been doing for the past 9 years now, as a glorified church hall). PLEASURE blog shows what might have happened:

The new academy was designed without any real consultation with the local artist community whatsoever, according to artists. The design was done by a Chinese firm, built by a Chinese contractor in accordance with Chinese building codes and specifications.

The building was supposedly inspired by the national flower, the Chaconia. But that is a loose association; the structure looks more like an imitation of the Sydney Opera House. Or a kind of sophisticated alien space-craft. How it fits into its environment also seems to have been an oversight by the designers, as the building looks away from the green of the Savannah and its environs, instead of paying tribute to them. This week, as preparations for tomorrow’s opening continued with curious members of the public strolling around the academy, Chinese workers who will never be afforded the luxury of attending the swanky performances inside worked overtime to the sound of Chinese techno music playing from speakers housed in large wrought-iron boxes around the building’s perimeter.

Questions have been raised about the adequacy of the steel used to build the structure, as well as the suitability of the design for performance. One Government minister has even pubically admitted, at the hearings of the Uff Commission of Inquiry, that some aspects of the building may be unsuitable to “performance” and more suitable to “training”. And the myriad of concerns over top-level  corruption looming over Udecott, the State company that handled the project, go without saying.

* P L E A S U R E *: A place for the arts

Despite all of this, in the face of it, the arts in Trinidad and Tobago are flourishing, thanks to individual action in the vacuum.

It is a crowning irony that throughout all of this, some have managed to find fertile places for art in the most unexpected of places. For instance, the million-dollar, shimmery structure that will open tomorrow may be an audacious sight, but it may never compare to what is happening at smaller spaces like Alice Yard, which is a few blocks away from the neglected Little Carib Theatre on Roberts Street.

At Alice Yard, a simple backyard has, over the last three years, done more for contemporary arts and discourse in this country than any $518 million mega-project can hope to do. Could it be that the State’s neglect has actually engineered the conditions for true artistic creativity?

* P L E A S U R E *: A place for the arts

The answer, apparently, lies in taking matters into one’s own hands, in not waiting for the “government” to deliver what one needs. (Hail Rik and Idebu!) So here’s to us, artists. Artists of the Caribbean, unite!

On Culture, CARIFESTA, and the Bahamian Economy, Part I

It came to my attention last month that our government was planning to postpone, once again, the hosting of the Caribbean Festival of Arts, if it had not yet done so. Announcements to that effect would be made very soon, I was told. The fact that such announcements have not yet been made may make this post obsolete. I rather doubt it, however.

It should be no surprise to anyone at all that I think this is a terrible idea. It’s not just because I would like to write for a living and make that living in the country in which I grew up. It’s also because it’s flying in the face of what international agencies focussed on development economics suggest is the place of culture in that development.

For those of us who don’t know, or who haven’t noticed, the world has changed. As I write, indeed, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, the US President is opening the door for negotiations with Cuba, which, as we all know, is the only viable competitor for The Bahamas’ prosperity in the Caribbean region. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the only reason The Bahamas has maintained its supreme position in the region has been because the fifty-year long US embargo of Cuba, has coincided with the latest Bahamian boom. But now, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is visiting Cuba, and the Obama administration is making very clear noises that the embargo will soon be lifted.

At the same time, for the first time in almost twenty years, the Bahamian government’s plan for prosperity — foreign investment, foreign investment, foreign investment — is not bearing fruit. Why not? The reasons are various. Perhaps the biggest is the reason Barack Obama himself gave for changing the way the USA has done business for the past generation or so — that trickle-down economics, or the spreading of the wealth accumulated by the rich and mighty — does not work. It no longer works in the USA, which is the greatest nation in the world; and it has not worked in The Bahamas as an engine of development for a country that has not yet invested in itself.  Oh, it has done well in providing a couple of decades’ worth of get-rich-quick money for a smattering of people. But as we are noticing, where the sharing of wealth is dependent on the goodwill of the greedy, little gets shared. And so our current “wealth” is almost wholly dependent on the goodwill of the foreign investor, who is interested in the people of this nation only as workers — as block-layers, lifeguards, toilet-cleaners, cooks, drivers, or middle managers who have no ability to affect or shape company policy.

Continue reading On Culture, CARIFESTA, and the Bahamian Economy, Part I

Fear: 4 packs, 10 oz. each

Fear is the name of an art exhibition mounted and curated in Canada, but produced in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s the work of Christopher Cozier, whose bio notes that he is

an artist and writer living and working in Trinidad [who] has participated in a number of exhibitions focused upon contemporary art in the Caribbean and internationally [and who is, among other things,] a Senior Research Fellow at the Academy of The University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) and … Artist-in-Residence at Dartmouth College during the Fall of 2007.

What’s exciting about his exhibition is the way in which it’s produced. It might be perplexing for most of us, who are used to the prettiness of art, the decorative quality of paintings, the controllability of our response to them: it consists of “a rubber stamp and 3x3x3-inch cardboard boxes that gallery viewers could stamp and take away with them from the exhibition.” (Fear, 2009: 5)  But that is entirely the point. The boxes and the stamp symbolize the state of the world at this end of the first decade of the 21st century: consumers of the fear exported by the USA that justifies and legitimizes the way in which that country exercises its authority as the last superpower on earth. It’s exciting, collaborative and subversive all at once. As Andrea Fantona, curator of the exhibition, explains:

The addition of this participatory element to the exhibition was exciting. Furthermore, producing the
elements comprising Available At All Leading Stores resulted in a fascinating reversal of the production-
consumption chain that generally defines North-South relationships. Here I was in Canada, producing a
work of art for consumption here in the North that was conceived and designed in Trinidad. The irony of
the process rang loudly for me. It seemed that the age-old system of capitalist development that favoured
the North had been turned onto its head, as I was now adding value to an idea, turned into commodity,
conceived in the South, yet produced and distributed in the North. (2009: 5)

What’s even more exciting, for me, is the way in which Nicholas Laughlin, fellow Trinidadian writer and editor, responded to Cozier’s work. For J’Ouvert (for those of you who don’t know what that is, follow the link and look it up) this year, he created his own riff on it: a cardboard box turned into a headpiece for the festival, on which he wrote


As he says:

For three or so hours on J’Ouvert morning, Paradise is an empty space, an absence, in a cardboard box I
balance on my head. Watch me, turning into a metaphor for a nation bearing the burden of false advertising and false hopes. If anything and everything is for sale, if art is just another product with varying profit margins, if Cozier can taunt us with the joke of commodified Fear, then I can re-commodify, re-sell, re-brand. (2009: 15)

Oh yes oh yes.

R.I.P. Hubert Farrington December 12, 1924-December 8, 2008

For those of you who hadn’t heard, Hubert Farrington, the first Bahamian classical dancer (that I know of) and the founder of the Nassau Civic Ballet, was knocked down and killed on Sunday past. (I’m not clear exactly which date he was killed, but as I heard of his death two days ago, I’m guessing it was last Sunday. If I’ve got the dates wrong, please somebody let me know).

Mr. Farrington was one of the three “stars” taught by Meta Davis-Cumberbatch in the second quarter of the twentieth century, the other two being Winston Saunders and E. Clement Bethel — students for whom she desired much and expected even more. Perhaps because of her ambition and expectation, and certainly because of her discipline and hard work, each of these men laid the foundations for a vibrant cultural life in this country. That we have not capitalized on it is not their fault. But we must remember them anyway.

Mr. Farrington began as a musician, but when he migrated to New York in the 1940s he learned to dance and, most remarkably, became a good enough ballet dancer to become a professional working at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He returned to Nassau in the 1960s to found a ballet school, the Nassau Civic Ballet, and that action was seminal to the future development of dance in the capital. From the Civic Ballet came the New Breed Dancers by way of Alex and Violette Zybine, and the New Breed Dancers provided many many of the professional dance teachers working in Nassau today.

Mr. Farrington was one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. He was not easy to talk to. He was often in another world, but when he was in ours his intellect was staggering. He remained like that until his death.

R.I.P., Hubert Farrington. Another cultural giant has passed on.

Presentation Zen: Is education killing creativity?

Came across this:

our education systems (around the world) are outdated and mainly designed to meet the needs of industrialization. Sir Ken [Robinson] makes many good points — some you may not agree with — but he certainly is not saying that math and science should be taught or studied less, rather that music and the arts and creativity in general should be pursued more.

Presentation Zen: Is education killing creativity?

I think I tend to agree.

Forget being tentative. I totally agree.

Here’s what Sir Ken says in his own words:

Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects … At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth. And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in school than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance everyday to children the way we teach them mathematics.

See for yourself – the YouTube clip via Riz Khan:

And the whole thing itself thanks to TED:

Art and culture make good business.

CARIFESTA X – An Alternative to the same old, same old

wonder of the world: CARIFESTA X – An Alternative to the same old, same old

The Bookman, a blog from Trinidad and Tobago, muses on art, CARIFESTA, and society.  It’s not coincidental, I think, that this week I’ve been to two talks already about the same thing:  one on Wednesday at PopOp Studios about CARIFESTA XI to be held in The Bahamas, and one last night at Chapter One Bookstore about the role of the writer in society.  At the end of the panel discussion from last night, where six of us, writers from very different backgrounds and with very different bodies of work, spoke about that role, we were answered in the discussion that followed by a visual artist who told us that our conversations were not isolated, that they were happening all around the country.   Something is happening nationwide about the Caribbean arts.  Perhaps we are coming into ourselves.  The Bookman suggests that perhaps this something is happening regionally.  Because I believe in the latter, I’m going to quote from The Bookman’s comment on CARIFESTA X to illustrate, just a little, what I mean, and what I hope:

One cannot help but feel that art is held as a fringe. That artists are at the edges of society, almost invisible, except for moments when society is engaged with it and comments on talent. It is always the same trite comment at that, that there is so much talent in Trinidad and Tobago…and? What are we doing about it?

So I am going around in circles with my point. The public need to be educated about what is happening in the arts locally and regionally. The corporate world needs to get more involved in the arts and make it much more relevant to their own business mandates, and the artists themselves must start to hold themselves to the highest standards, look at their profession as deserving of much more than handouts and government support and we need to be very loud and clear about just how much we mean to our society by having alternative spaces to show our work and encourage the society to see that we mean business and that it isn’t business as usual.

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