The Drama of Theatre in Guyana
by Petamber Persaud
THEATRE in Guyana is full of drama for its existence was often in jeopardy as if its days were numbered. Since its advent, the theatre was fraught with difficulties. Among the difficulties were the destruction by fire of the Theatre Royal in December, 1828 and the Assembly Room in February, 1945, and the rise and fall of major drama movements like the British Guiana Dramatic Society (1936 – 1948) and the Sugar Estate Drama Festival. There was also class segregation as the Amateur Dramatic Club was restricted to Whites, and the Histrionic Club restricted to Coloureds. Also contributing to the challenges were the rise and fall of the Theatre Guild, migration of the best players (playwrights, actors/actresses, directors etc.) in drama and lack of climate in the country to reproduce and replace those that went or to spawn new breeds of people and props.
As it was in the beginning, so it is presently – struggling but surviving, limping along, a real ‘break-a-leg’ wish that stayed that way for most of the time, partially healing at odd moments when pushed to perform. But this is not to say that there were no high points. In fact, there was semblance of stability of theatre in Guyana lasting some 60 years, that period beginning in the 1940s and running into the new millennium.
The 1940s was pegged as the birth of modern drama in Guyana. Norman Cameron can be credited with initiating this new wave of drama. After returning from his studies abroad where he found himself in an embarrassing situation of been unable to talk on a Guyanese Literature, he did a number of things to correct that shortcoming. As he researched our literature, he also found that plays were still foreign-oriented. Forthwith, he became engaged in drama, publishing his first play in 1931.
Also during the 1940s, the British Guiana Dramatic Society, which was established in 1936, came to prominence, but for most of its existence it was guilty of producing plays from out of India as was the case with the other groups mimicking English, Dutch and German plays. It must be noted that this society was an East Indian group promoting such ethnic interest in Georgetown. It was started by the Singh clan comprising of J. B. Singh and his wife, Alice Bhagwandai, with their daughter, Rajkumari Singh, and grandchildren carrying the torch into present day. This society distinguished itself by publishing a journal, THE DRAMAG, and also establishing cultural ties between this country and Suriname.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the rise of the Gray Dramatic Group of what is now Linden town.
The popular and extensive Sugar Estate Drama Festival, which was started in the late 1950s, brought rural theatre into the equation. This outwards thrust of the theatre movement was followed in the next decade by the formation of the Mackenzie Little Theatre. Then theatre became centralised again with the institution of the National Drama Festival which did not augur well for theatre in Guyana. But it is said a country gets the theatre is deserves!
However, the major impetus of this period was the founding of the Theatre Guild in 1957 which grew in stature, going on to produce some of the more outstanding players in drama including Sheik Sadeek, Frank Pilgrim, Ken Corsbie, Robert Narain, Michael Gilkes, Ron Robinson, Lorna Lampkin, Eileen McAndrew, Cecily Robinson, to name a few, notwithstanding those who worked behind the scene like Bertie Martins, Lloyd Searwar, Arthur Hemstock, Lionel Luckhoo, James R. Ramphal, Frank Thomasson and others.
Then there is the contemporary crop of dramatists including Francis Quamina Farrier and Bertram Charles that followed on from out of the previous period, Ian Valz, Harold Bascom and Paloma Mohamed who are presently the most active.
The National Cultural Centre opened in 1972 has now become the main stage for theatre in Guyana.
Where did it all start? Theatre in Guyana started in the late 18th century when the European colonisers imported this medium of entertainment as part of their need for social recreation. The first evidence surfaced in 1796 when a ‘coffee house’ was leased by John Bodkin for the above purposes. The first building for the above purposes was constructed by Mr. M. Campbell in 1805. Then the Theatre Royal opened with its first performances in 1810 viz. ‘The Tragedy of George Bramwell’ and the farce, ‘The Anatomist’.
In 1828, fire destroyed the Theatre Royal and the void was filled with the birth of the Minor Theatre. In that same year, the ‘Dutch Theatre’ was erected for those members of the society. Then there were the famous Assembly Rooms and the Philharmonic Hall in the later 19th century which encouraged an upsurge in drama and gave birth to numerous dramatic entities including Demerara Dramatic Club, Georgetown Dramatic Club, the Histrionic Club, the Lyceum, the Three Arts, the Jerusalem Players. Around this time, there were references to Chinese and Portuguese theatricals and entertainments, and the ‘non-establishment dramatic activity’ of the East Indians.
The turn of the century, saw an increase of dramatic activities of East Indians (the Shah clan of Nrityageet fame was part of that ferment) with the recurring re-enactments of the Ram Leela and Krishna Leela, perhaps leading to the formation of the British Guiana Dramatic Society in 1936.
And the drama of theatre in Guyana continues as we enter the new millennium in the same way as it was in the beginning with its ups and downs.
* Benjamin, Joel. The Early Theatre in Guyana. KYK-OVER-AL # 37
* KAIE # 3
* Creighton, Al. Introduction to CARIBBEAN MYTHOLOGY AND MODERN LIFE by Paloma Mohamed, 2004
* Kandasammy, Lloyd. A Brief History of the Theatre in British Guiana. THE GUYANA ANNUAL 2004-2005