According to the very informative programme printed by GT&T and Guyenterprise for last week's production of Dave Martins' All In Wan, Guyana marked independence in 1966 with several events. Prominent among them on May 27 was the inevitable performance of the carnivalesque on the streets of Georgetown. There were "the Independence road march by the country's top steel bands" and "a parade of floats which displayed ingenuity and imagination". For Guyana, these were parts of the 'tramping', which was a forerunner to Mashramani, and a typical Caribbean expression of nationhood.
Forty years later when GT&T "wanted to contribute" to the celebration of the independence anniversary, it inevitably turned to theatre. Since the years of slavery theatre was the first and most characteristic means of expression by the people for almost everything including religion, rites of passage, resistance, tragedy and celebration. So the presentation of a theatrical production was a good idea, appropriate and a fine gesture by the sponsors, which was well supported by the public audience who made it a box office success.
The main idea was a gift and a tribute to the 40-year-old Guyanese nation and there was a special independence night gala presentation. But it was also a tribute to Bill Pilgrim who had been asked to help with the initial idea. For him this was a fitting dedication (it was intended that he should have been the musical director) and the resulting production, All In Wan drew on a wide range of some of the notable Guyanese talent.
GEMS theatre Productions led by Gem Madhoo-Nascimento managed the production. The music and lyrics were by celebrated musician and cultural icon Dave Martins; it was directed by Ron Robinson with musical director Oliver Basdeo, choreography by Indranie Shah and Clive Prowell with Seeta Shah Mohamed as production choreographer; the set was designed by Henry Muttoo, one of the leading and most artistic practitioners in the Caribbean, with lighting by Norman Dos Ramos, the most respected in the country. Among the performers were the acclaimed Keith Waithe, Terry Gajraj, the Mighty Rebel, the Nadira and Indranie Shah Dance Troupe MS, La Classique Dance Company and the Jokers Wild Masquerade band.
The production attempted "total theatre", what critic Judy Stone called "festival theatre" or what is (sometimes half-seriously) called "calabash theatre" in parts of Africa. Its concept, themes and expression of nationhood are best described in Dave Martins' own words.
"In early 1988, Guyana commissioned me to write the musical Raise Up on the occasion of Guyana's 150th Anniversary of full emancipation. In the course of that research at the UG Reference Library, the most striking revelation for me was that in the midst of the grinding horrors of slavery, the human spirit stayed vibrant in our people as they continued to love, sing, dance, laugh and sustain themselves despite the dreadful circumstances. The clear evidence of perseverance in those old documents came as a shock; it contradicted my assumptions of a dejected and emasculated people. It was an education that has stayed vividly with me.
"I conceived and wrote All In Wan on essentially a similar premise: that as we question what is sustaining us at home, the answer is clearly our vibrant and varied culture - in effect, our evolved way of life. Where there is hope for us, that is its principle source. All In Wan, generously supported by GT&T, draws on the considerable production experience of Gem Mahdoo-Nascimento, the directorial skills of Ron Robinson, and a range of talented Guyanese performers and backstage professionals, to show us who we are."
While all was grand, appropriate, and an undoubted major production, the script and plot were one-dimensioned. The structure was linear; the theme had nothing new, focused, as it was, on the "all in one" motif. This typical, often tried attempt at "fusion" using music, dialogue, narration, choreography and dance in the way it was done here hardly works artistically. It achieves little depth and marginal success when forced or deliberately orchestrated, as was the case in All In Wan. But fusion can work, and does so excellently when it evolves naturally in traditions in language, artistic form or theatre. It was neither natural nor effective in the production.
All In Wan was anchored by a lime at the home of Archie (Howard Lorrimer) who was celebrating his 40th birthday with three friends played by Ajay Baksh, Michael Ignatius and Kirk Jardine representing four races - African, Indian, Chinese and Portuguese. It was a simulation of Guyana with its multi-racial, multi-cultural interaction. The four friends drink, ole-talk, tell stories and jokes and indulge in much nostalgia, reflecting on the past and on Guyanese society. They talk about culture, customs, traditions and achievements with multi-media embellishment. Sometimes pictures were projected showing these things and accompanied by narration.
It was, therefore, not a full play nor musical, but illustrated dialogue. The thinly sketched story line was obviously the device to stitch the several songs, dances, dialogue and music together. These were not brought together with any depth, there was very little dramatic wholeness, but mainly a listing of items. These items illustrated Guyana's rich heritage and, in great measure, its ethnic plurality. But at times, the tone and style of some of the pieces were a bit perplexing. For example, there was much effort exerted to blend Indian performance with African, with mixed results. It was not clear why the merging of the Indian Kathak dance with the African was done comically, or so it seemed. It looked more like parody as the wild leaps and prances, in what passed for African dance, were gradually imitated by the Indian dancers.
Yet, among these very items were some outstanding exhibitions that truly showed the way of Guyanese performing arts. Martins is a renowned songwriter and although some of his lyrics were still lists of things, others had real depth, and always, his music was the work of a solid composer and carried the show with power.
The Amerindian dance was outstanding, though I did not fully understand the lead dancer. The Cane Cutter dance also had strength in its design and performance with a commanding effect unlike some of the others. In addition, the accomplishment of flautist Keith Waithe commandeered attention and drew disparate music together in a way only minimally achieved elsewhere. In this arrangement the drum fusion of the Cove and John Ashram with Congo Nyah worked well in "Sohaani Raat".
One of the most outstanding things about All In Wan was Muttoo's spectacular set with its bamboo motif, a favourite of the designer. The spectacle itself was often enhanced by the effects of the 'cast of thousands' (actually 180). That was certainly quite a challenge for the production and stage management as well as for the director, suggesting the considerable work put in to pull it off. All was very well coordinated except for the grand finale, which was too grand a finale. It was over-done, much too lengthy and repetitive, tiring out the audience who were never sure when it was really ending, and spoiling a well deserved curtain call.