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The Artium

cropped-2013-01-13-07-02-551.jpgA recent development has managed to interrupt the myopic focus on my dissertation and has also served to re-inspire my interest in critical criticism of drama and creative work in the Caribbean in general. Recently, I was privileged enough to be invited to a new project. This opportunity was extended by a former lecturer who taught Drama and Theatre in the Caribbean, as well as some typical drama courses such as Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, etc at the University of the West Indies. The project he is spearheading is called “The Artium”. The purpose of The Artium is to re-energize the languishing drama movement at the University of the West Indies. It is led by undergraduate students who seem very passionate about the need for union and community of critics, playwrights, script-writers, actors at our campus.

What this has to do with this blog is that it has re-inspired me to continue the good work I had started on this blog, but had unfortunately stalled once I got into my thesis. It had also stalled because I found I was the only one who seemed interested in critiquing dramatic work of the Caribbean online, and that was a very lonely place to be. I found solace in other blogs that I also manage, on blogspot and tumblr. As well as other social media websites such as twitter and livejournal, all of which I allow myself to be far more informal in discussing literature, drama and popular culture in general. Still I have come to understand that the formal standard I had set for this blog has worth as well as it can be used as an aside tool of criticism for future students of Caribbean literature. Particularly for undergraduate students as the lack of comprehensive, straightforward analysis for Caribbean drama criticism on the internet leaves much to be desired.

Dear All

To whom it may concern,

I am very sorry about the extended hiatus on this blog this year. I am (still) waist-deep in a thesis but I should be back in a few weeks time.

Sincerely,

C.

p.s. I’ve had a post on a Caryl Phillips play in the pipes for months smh. That’s the first order of business when I return.

Analysis of a Close Reading of ‘A Diary of Souls’

On Monday, December 1st, the students of CARI 6011: Caribbean Text and Performance performed a close reading of an excerpt of the play “Diary of Souls”. “Diary of Souls” was written by the Bahamian playwright Ian Gregory Strachan. This play concerns the treatment of Haitians by Bahamians. It is the story of a sea guard who gets embroiled in the anti-Haitian culture of Bahamas when his team is faced with the task of disposing of several Haitian bodies on an uninhabited island. Following this he is haunted or “visited” by the ghosts of a few of the Haitian spirits which could not make the passage to their final spiritual resting place and therefore need his help. Most of the principal characters are Haitian ghosts and the element of the supernatural is also seen in the vodoun accomplished by the character Sylvie. This play is an excellent one to study in class or to perform in a Caribbean setting as it very casually assumes the valorisation of alternate epistemologies such as vodoun. This religion is given credence very naturally in the play. The only person who doubts the existence of the supernatural is an agnostic therapist whose materialist methods of helping Ishmael are ultimately inneffectual. The following is a review of an excerpt the students put on from “Diary of Souls”.

The excerpt the participants performed was Scene 2 to Scene 7.

The readers were assigned the following roles:
Ti Twan – Kherrie
Pol        – Malica
Silvi      – Allysen
Ishmael-Malica
Doctor – Camille

(The Direction and Stage directions were read by Janelle)

A close reading requires that the actors get to know their characters very well and seek to give as close a portrayal of their voice as their voice is the only thing they can focus on as one cannot use their body. This is what I’ve learnt of the characters based on the voicing by the students. (N.B. Malica was faced with the difficult task of voicing two characters:  Pol and Ishmael)

The casting of Allysen as Silvi was the perfect decision as she naturally has a melancholic tone and she had analyzed her character enough to exploit this. She recognized that Silvi showed a quiet maturity beyond her years due to her spiritual leaning and understanding of vodoun. This alternate epistemology or different way of understanding natural phenomena meant that Silvi has naturally acquired a wisdom beyond her years. Allysen rightly spoke slowly, deliberately and softly in order to convey this. Silvi has the fewest lines out of the tree dead characters, yet what she does say has a weight which informs the listener that it has greater meaning than the few words would suggest. She is one of the most levelheaded characters of the play with much fewer lines than her male countarparts,  which makes it good for a feminist interpretation. Indeed, the ghosts could not have made it fully into the land of the dead had Sylvi not known how to communicate with Ishmael through vodoun.

Her wisdom is paralleled with the calm patience the Doctor displays with Ishmael. The doctor was played by Camille who sought to portray the level-headed psychiatrist whose task is to assist Ishmael who appears to be suffering from Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder. The contrast between patient and doctor was highly important as they are operating out of two very different belief systems. Ishmael has believed in ghosts from his youth while the Doctor has a logical, almost materialist, view of interpreting the world. She is more than skeptical of Ishmael’s “visits” from the dead and promptly prescribes anti-psychotic medication. She thinks nothing more of the dead apart from the fact that death is eminent for everyone. However, apart from using her practical world-view which is ultimately ineffectual in a play which privileges notions of an alternate spirituality, the Doctor more importantly serves as the voice of the reader. It is also her duty to record Ishmael’s version of events, for while she finds it difficult to believe everything he says, she is dissonant enough to question the official record given by the powers that be. She  She is part investigator, part healer but ultimately the only person that can heal Ishmael is himself with the help of Silvi.

As mentioned before, Pol was played by Malica who also played the role of Ishmael. This required her to alter her voice significantly to distinguish between characters. Pol exhibits an almost defeatist attitude which Malica exaggerated by a low tone and slow and deliberate enunciation. On the other hand as Ishmael she spoke with a high, anxious tone which at times careened up and down in pitch as he tried to explain these supernatural sightings to the skeptical psychiatrist. The anxiety she showed as Pol emphasised the Post Tramatic Stress Disorder he is suffereing from following the disposal of the bodies. He is wracked with guilt, and on top of that is now haunted by the ghosts of those who did not fully make the passage to Guinea, where the dead spirits lie. The way frantic Ishmael and the doubtful Doctor bounced off of each other in this excerpt demonstrated the fact that they are operating out of two very different belief systems.

Just from this excerpt the success of this play by Ian Strachan can be seen in its valorisation of the Caribbean belief system vodoun. Vodoun as a syncretic form of religion which is the mixing of African religions and European Catholicism. Vodoun in itself shows the Caribbean to be the point of intersection between several cultures and is a valid way of seeing the world in Haiti. The benefit of this is seen in its positive use in this play.

Aimé Cesaire’s ‘A Tempest’

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Aime Cesaire’s ‘A Tempest’ is the classic text to demonstrate the truism that much of Caribbean drama is concerned with the act of “writing back” to the Empire. Much like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was answered by Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Aime Cesaire re-writes another crutch of England literary canon thereby undermining what the empire has built itself on (the entire epistemology of what it means to be British). Cesaire writes back the Empire because he wants the British colonial system to confront what it has done to the colonials; to take account of its atrocities. Here, Cesaire takes the well-known Shakespearian play and re-writes it addressing the concerns a colonial subject of the Caribbean had back then, and whose post-Independent are still concerned with today.
Still, this begs the question: Why did Cesaire choose this particular play of Shakespeare’s to re-write? Well, The name ‘the Tempest’ already suggests a certain volatility which can be argued to be likened to the ontological malaise a Caribbean person constantly finds himself immersed in. To explain, this malaise is due to the fact that the Caribbean contains multitudes; a plethora of different peoples who all have mixed backgrounds and mixed blood from numerous different tribal groups in Africa, from Europe, from the Indian subcontinent, from the now decimated native groups that once populated the Caribbean, from Syria … we can go on and on.
The benefit of this play by Shakespeare is that it is already multicultural like the Caribbean. We have the European side represented by Prospero, Miranda and the other shipwrecked Europeans, the black slave represented by Caliban, and Ariel, the mulatto slave, who all collide on the tiny island which could easily be, and might have been meant to represent a Caribbean island. And what ensues is a very typical colonial struggle between the coloniser Prospero and the colonised Caliban reminiscent of what is in many Caribbean history books.

The benefit of writing this play in the twentieth century is that it can call on political and cultural icons who can easily make the characters relatable. For example, in the play Caliban shares clear parallels with Malcolm X while the “house slave” Ariel bears a striking resemblance to Martin Luther King Jr.

Caliban is the spokesman through which Cesaire can vent his anticolonial anger on Prospero, who here as we have said, is a representative of all the colonial empires of Europe. In the end Caliban holds Prospero accountable for all the psychological damage he has suffered:

You lied to me so much
about the world, about myself,
that you ended up by imposing on me
an image of myself:
underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent-
that’s how you made me see myself! …

This may as well be the official letter all postcolonial subjects post to the former Empires for it speaks of the mental slavery other iconic figures such as Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey etc, preached about. The following classic statement from the Tempest about language has been adopted and re-advanced several times by postcolonial critics as the crucial quote which sums up all that postcolonial literature seeks to do:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse

This shows the heart of all postcolonial literature which is the tormented relationship the colonized has with his colonizer, and his determination to use the language of the colonizer in order to expose the colonizer as the debilitating force it was on the subjects who have to go through the long process of decolonisation in order to reverse the psychological effects of centuries of colonisation.

Works Cited

Cesaire, Aimé.  A Tempest.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.

Bellywoman Bangarang

This play was written by The Sistren Theatre Collective of Jamaica. The introductory note on the play in the Contemporary Drama of the Caribbean explains that it was founded by working class women in Kingston and with assistance from a tutor from the Jamaican School of Drama. The objective as recorded in the introductory note was to:

analyse and comment on the role of women in Jamaican society through theatre, to organize ourselves into a self-reliant co-operative enerprise and to take drama to working class communities (77).

The Sistren Theatre Collective exhibits a distinctly feminist impulse as well as one dedicated to defying Gyatri Spivak’s theory that the subaltern cannot speak.  Here we see the most subaltern of them all: poor, third-world, inner-city, black, women giving voice to serious issues challenging Jamaican society and taking it to the “downpressed” people of Jamaica. But this was not without serious opposition by the powers that be as the actors were pelted with fruit and faced general resistance and aggression by males because of their frankness about the rampant reality of rape culture and the acknowledgement of homosexuality in Jamaica. This play, while being criticized as being “too expressionistic” is a brave and honest betrayal which no doubt embarassed the audience as it was fearless in its airing out of dirty linen. One important issue addressed was the internalized misogyny of many of young girls’ mothers who reperpetuate the dominance of men and force their daughters to abide by the misogynistic society they were born into. This sets up the vicious cycle of abject poverty in which most of inner-city women live: The mothers get pregnant young and have several children, do not encourage the daughters to find a way out of the ghetto and so the daughter winds up having several “pickneys” herself and the cycle continues.

One surprising critic of the plays were feminists from abroad. The introductory note says

Some feminists abroad lambasted it for remaining silent and not doing enough on issues of homphobia (80)

Here we see the differences in first-wold and post-colonial feminism which is an area that I am personally very interested in. The fact of the matter is that as feminists around the world have different issues which concern them, there will be discrepancies in an ideology of feminism which seeks to cloak and stand for the rights of all women and advances ideas of intersectionality. In the 1970’s, while first world feminists were gaining ground in America in rights of sexual liberty and birth control etc, the objectives of post-colonial feminists were very different. This play for example places greater emphasis on rape, domestic abuse and what to do when there is no birth control used and the girl is already pregnant. What then? There are also institutionalized issues of class prejudice and race which are very serious concerns in post-colonial societies. In the midst of this very gynocentric work, adequate attention to the issue of homosexuality (in any case the Jamaican audiences already thought it was too “anti-man”) may not have been put to the fore in a way that first world feminists would have liked. But quite frankly the play was not put on for them. It was described by a member a the target group, a young black female who said she liked the play because “what me get from di play is dat dem a sey we woman musn’t be licky licky. An a dat me like.”

Therefore it can be said that the Sistren Theatre Collective achieved their objective in reaching the core group of arguably the most oppressed group of the world: third world, poor, uneducated, black, women.

Works Cited

Sistren Theatre Collective. Contemporary Drama of the Caribbean. Ed. Erika J Waters and David Edgecombe. St. Croix: The Caribbean Writer, 2001. 77-131. Print.

Waters, Erika and David Edgecombe. Contemporary Drama of the Caribbean. Ed. Erika J Waters and David Edgecombe. St. Croix: The Caribbean Writer, 2001. Print.

Odale’s Choice

Odale’s Choice was published by Barbadian writer Edward Brathwaite in the year 1967 and prior to that performed at the Mfantisam Secondary School, Saltpond, Ghana in 1962. Odale’s Choice is the modernized version of the Greek play Antigone. It is concerned with the rebellion of one girl, Odale, who defies her uncle Creon when she tries to give her bother the dignity of a burial. The setting of the play is an unnamed location in Africa. In the production note in the book it states that

The theme is timeless: the defiance of tyranny, a situation full of conflict and natural drama (3).

Therefore, though it is set in an unnamed African country the universal themes of tyranny and conflict suggest it could be mapped over any territory or land in the world. In fact, one could very easily re-write Brathwaite’s play and set it in a Middle Eastern country governed using Sharia law. The restriction of women in a religious patriarchal climate is very applicable to the themes of female oppression and male domination represented in Brathwaite’s play by Odale and her uncled Creon.

 As a re-writing of an ancient Greek play revered in the West it adheres to the precept of Caribbean literature as being primarily concerned with “writing back to the Empire” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffins). This writing back concept has been one performed by many other Caribbean writers, including Jean Rhys with Wide Sargasso Sea, her response to Jane Eyre.
The impulse of the play is clearly guided by Edward’s awakening African consciousness. At the publishing of this book he was still called Edward, though now he is Kamau. The birth name alone tells us that it is an early work by Brathwaite. The play is saturated by this burgeoning nostalgia for Africa which Walcott would say is no longer our own to be nostalgic about. The language of the text at times sounds distinctively Barbadian instead of that of an African country. For example on page 13 a sergeant says “An’ keep you eyes open! … you lamp gone out an’ you mouth open sleepin’.” The arrangement of words here sounds uniquely Bajan. The question thus becomes, was this intentionally done by Brathwaite, a linguistic attempt to bridge Africa and Barbados divided by colonial history by using both Bajan dialect as well as cliché African words? Was taking this play to Africa his early attempt to legitimize himself as African in African eyes? Walcott, the realist, would say to these claims of legitimacy to an African identity that we can never go back and the attempt to do so is a farce. According to him the “claim we put forward now as Africans is not our inheritance but a bequest, like that of other races” (10). Therefore he believes that we as the descendants of Africans (and of Europeans and of Amerindians, and of Syrians, and Chinese, and of Indians, and whatever other groups came here to make the Caribbean an even more complicated and layered archipelago) are so far removed from the point of origin that to request an African identity is not our right but is merely our heritage which we don’t have a right to.

However the worth of this play may be found in its universal themes of tyranny and male domination as most of modern day societies are still very patriarchal and Odale’s struggle in  this society as a lone female is very relatable till this day. As such, the one passage which achieves a level of sincerity is Odale’s monologue where she laments the oppressed status of the woman, and also exhibits a level of internalised misogyny:

We are women. We bring you into the and we bear you out again. We weep at your birth and mourn at your death. That at least is our duty; that alone we can do. And if we don’t do it, we are failing all women. We are weak, but we must be strong (19)

This appraisal of the limits and weaknesses of women is challenged by Odale herself who defies her uncle in order to bury her brother. So in practice she works against the words that come out of her mouth. Finally, by the closing of the play her actions and actions resemble each other:

Don’t touch me! Of my own free will, I will go! (32)

These are Odale’s final words as she led off by male guards to her death. This persistence of female resistance in the uber-patriarchal society represented by her tyrannical, omnipotent uncle is one to be admired, but it is about the only good aspect of this relatively weak early work.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth, Griffith, Tiffin, Helen. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in
Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.

Brathwaite, Edward. “Odale’s Choice”. Ibadan: Evan Brothers Limited, 2011. Print.

Walcott, Derek. “What the Twilight Says.” What the Twilight Says: Essays. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1998. Print. 3-35.