This year’s Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival offered a number of reinterpretations of old favourites and some new specials. The focus of this piece will be on Trevor Rhone’s 1970s play “Old Story Time” that appears in the collection of plays with “Smile Orange” and “School’s Out.” These three plays offer a deeply critical view of postcolonial, dare I argue, Caribbean society. The work is tight and funny. I took a group of first year university students to a Thursday night performance and was stunned by the realisation of how few of them had ever been to the Dundas Theatre, how few had ever been to a play, or had been to a play outside of a school production. My thinking was, ‘We in trouble.’ This realization has been compounded by the lack of awareness of national art, culture and historical spaces among those bodies I am meant to be helping to learn a little bit of culture. Of course, the charge in Dorian’s wake becomes, “Who really cares about culture?” As governmental priorities change and no real work on rebuilding or shifting from storm crisis to redefining and redesigning spaces and places other than implementing laws that arguably might/will make their jobs easier and people’s lives more challenging. Meanwhile the stories and the culture are abandoning the former (non)plantation colony.
The focus, for me, is the relationship between the old and the new. Miss Aggie (Doris Jackson) and Pa Ben (Dion Johnson) represent the old and Len (Kentario McKenzie), Miss Aggie’s son, represents the new/modern in the 1970s Caribbean. The old colonial colour and power paradigms remain in place. Today, they are more polemical and even more invisibly entrenched. The role of the planter class George, played by Greg Deane, an excellently evil interpretation of the nasty and ugly and corrupt plantocrat who manipulates or crookeds his way into and out of wealth. The complexity and simplicity of colonial systems are clear in Rhone’s writing where Lois (Gayle Barrow) in her need for funds loses her honour to the evil George who is reminiscent of George Lamming’s Slime, from “In the Castle of My Skin” (1953) only “white”.
The ole time
We have forgotten, somehow, so much of the recent past and even more of the old time past that we are at risk of losing much of Bahamian oral and written culture. As those who capture local lore and culture leave the plane, we stand to lose much of our identity in the vapid space of tourism. This is common knowledge, yet rarely challenged. The government focuses on banking (after banking has all but died) and we remain behind new strategic shifts in financial services and cultural development. We lag in spite of our claim to be the best little destination in the region and are left to ask what are we actually doing. Culture is so vital to tourism. Shakespeare in Paradise is a moment in the year, like horse racing in Barbados and Vertical Blue (Free Diving Competition) on Long Island that I have only learned about it through the accident of sitting in a cafe in the Garrison in Barbados. While tourism is packaged and sold to North Americans who visit Atlantis, little is done, even by the tourism engine of the Ministry, to truly capture and promote the real, living Bahamas. Hotels and resorts are not real; they are a product of tourism, and if done well, can attract more visitors. If they are done badly, or erase the culture, tourism leaves slowly but measuredly. These lessons have been learned from best practices in sustainable and cultural/heritage tourism.
Tellin’ old story
We could talk ole story good, but only if we know or remember them. Old stories are essential to local understanding. The space for them is dire and the need for them as a part of identity formation is fundamental. It is a travesty of tourism that many tourist guides have no cultural understanding of or any space in the historical or cultural milieu, rather they make up bogus stories about our lives and histories that do not jive at all with anything we know or live.
Old spaces and new spaces can create a conversation about Bahamian identity and culture that could be rich for attracting visitors; but the resort does not enrich the local space, it rather, especially under the Progressive Liberal Party’s early model of tourism that saw to it that all “attractions” were moved to Bay Street so that visitors would not have to venture “over the hill” to communities rich in history and culture; these shifts have ultimately impoverished many of these communities. This is the ole story of tourism at the expense of the local. I would argue that Shakespeare in Paradise could be a cultural tourism product and an anchor that brings a new look at cultural and sustainable tourism.
How do we rebuild?
We have lost a great deal, but we now need to see that loss as a gain, an opportunity to build culture back and create a sustainable, intentionally designed industry or ecosystem of schools and art programmes that filter in(up)to a performing arts and plastic arts industry/ecology that translates into no longer needing to buy Bahamian cultural products made in China. Yes, they will be more expensive and cruise tourists will not buy them unless we do a fabulous job, but perhaps cruise tourism, often seen as bargain basement tourism, needs to stop being the country’s focus. It brings no real money into the local economy, only continuing the circulation of FDI and offshore accounts bulging with repatriated funds. Little has been done to empower the working-class creators and facilitators of cultural tourism. This needs to be changed.
Art and culture need to be rethought and retaught; law and medicine are not the cat’s meow, as the lawyers and doctors, too, produce fabulous art and cultural works. Why invisibalize them? Stop the epistemic violence that silences local cultural producers.
Writing our stories
“Old Story Time” was an excellent show, but made me ask why not create more Bahamian stories? We need to be more inclusive and less obfuscationary and closed. Things die when they are not allowing new blood to flow in and through. I am happy to see “Short Tales” being included for a second year, but want more. We need more Bahamian theatre by Bahamian writers and performers. We also need a Bahamian theatre going public, but the less than D average audience, the Ministry of Education highlights, who cannot cut the communion wafer. As the schools are emptied of the talented few, who are shunted off to private sectors that rape the public system, we are left with a cultural dearth that is striking. I think we have a wonderful theatre and art community, but it needs more blood. It cannot be the few who work tirelessly to fight government violence and silence around culture while promoting culture in tourism. As I sat with my students I was saddened by the small audience but happy we were there. The discourse of culture is essential to national development and a strong cultural arm is developed through such moments.
The need for subvention
We need to take culture, not tourism culture, more seriously. We need to encourage, not pay lip service to, the arts. I understand that the University of The Bahamas is planning this kind of move, but perhaps even this quasi-public/private institution cannot adequately produce cultural and creative industry given its formal academic restrictions. A less-formal, less rule-governed, less conservatively focused academic success and more on cultural experimentation and creative expansion institution may be better. As I write this I hear the stewps and cusses held under breaths and spat through clenched teeth. Old story time is tellin’ old stories that underscores the lack of understanding, continued and deepened, of African derived culture, religious practices and the disparaging comments for even those Bahamian local practices that are not middle class. Theatre and art have somehow been stuck in this silo of unacceptable practices that do not enrich; all aspects of society must focus on respectable professions and not the trades.
Rhone’s play was excellently cast and performed, and fit the moment as government stalls in post-Dorian recovery. I would love to see more “modern” renderings of traditional moments that once served to critique an entrenched post-colonial ethos. Culture is like Calypso, rich in local expression and national critique. If the audience sometimes misses this, that’s fine, but we will never grow if we do not shift gears from reverse back into at least second gear.