Transcript of an interview with Errol Hill
LOCATION: Bridgetown, Barbados
Yes, I believe what I was saying was that my consciousness of both the Carnival, in all its aspects and my involvement in theatre took place side by side.
Actually, that's not quite true because I've been involved in theatre practically in my mother's womb. She was a very well-known actress for the Methodist Church and I think that she was over eighty when she still performed some of the church plays, but when I was seriously involved in the drama through the White Hall players which was one of the strong amateur groups in Trinidad - this would have been in the 1940s - it was about the time that I was also very much involved in Carnival and especially in the growth of the steelband and I did this through the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Council.
Very few people know and appreciate what The Youth Council did in those days, but just to give you an example: I remember along with two other members of the Council - Lennox Pierre and Carlisle Kerr taking Ellie Mannett into the radio broadcasting unit on Maraval road - we had a Voice of Youth Programme - and actually being the first people to put pan on the airwaves, asking Ellie to come and play and explain what the pan was doing. It was an educational programme and a cultural programme. So you see, we were very much involved. We wrote poems. My earliest play, Ping Pong was written in 1954, again in an attempt
to let the people understand what was in the minds and hearts of these steelband players; how passionately devoted they were to creating music. I don't know if you could remember, but that was a time when everyday in the newspapers, you would read of fights between the bands, people being arresting, magistrates saying they're going to send them up for so many years and actually people being killed. There was one particular sonnet I wrote about the death of a young man who was stabbed and ran and his blood forming a trail through Woodford Square. So it was something that we felt quite deeply and at the same time we were doing dramas.
Many of the plays were being taken from England - modern English plays, excerpts from Shakespeare and so on. So these two things came side by side and when I had the opportunity after going to England on a British Council scholarship to study at the famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and coming back and later going up to Yale Drama School and I had time to reflect. I could see how the two interests coincided. I can see how in the search for identity which was coming throughout the Caribbean, all the various forms, the speech and the kind of music, the sort of rhythm, the kind of movement in dance. All the things that would give us identity could be found, so far as Trinidad is concerned, in the Carnival and also for the rest of the West Indies, in the folk forms. And I went up to Jamaica when I got my first appointment with the extra mural department at the University -this was in 1953 - and immediately started to investigate all the folk traditions in Jamaica and immediately started to put out Caribbean plays using Creole and English Creole and French Creole and being abused that anyone connected with the University should be doing this.
So in that sense, I suppose, the effort was a pioneering one, but I'm pleased today to see that many of our reputed playwrights are using the folk forms in many different ways - Dennis Scott, Walcott himself, Rawle Gibbon. In fact, I'm thinking right now for Trinidad Carifesta which takes place next year August, might be a good thing to put out a collection of Carnival plays. I bet you can't tell me when was the first Carnival play ever written. I think it was in 1845. I found it in the newspaper - a play written about the Carnival. So it was written in Creole and I had it translated into French Creole. TIE (Theatre Information Exchange)came later. I don't know as much about TIE as I should. I've asked Ken (Corsbie) to let me see his records as he promised, but I haven't seen him yet. I was away. I was in Africa, and then I went up to the United States where I reside now. I try my best to keep in touch with what's going on in the West Indies and in fact I'm going back to New Hampshire to polish up a book I have written which has been researched for over several years, too many years, on the history of the Jamaican theatre. Dating back to 1900.
There has been one book written on the Jamaican theatre which was really dealing with the eighteenth century group of players from America. They came from England originally to America and then to Jamaica and the work that they did there, but I am going much further on than that, right through to the end of the nineteenth century and dealing in several chapters with the folk forms. Tea meetings for instance which I haven't seen much written about
and the earliest mention I have found of those people who delivered humorous speeches in Jamaican dialect; the sort of thing that Paul Keens Douglas is doing now, that was done back in the 1880s back in Jamaica. There was a family of them and at least two of them were known throughout the island for their work. One even went up to Boston where he was not very successful taking this abroad. So there is a great deal of information if one really wants to find out about Caribbean theatre. Caribbean theatre in all its forms is a great deal of research to be done.
There have been developments. I don't know as much of what's going on in the smaller territories as I should, but in Jamaica, theatre is now very prolific. The Jamaican Creole is used more frequently on the stages of Jamaica than is Standard English -not altogether a good thing, but I'm just reporting a fact.
You could be in Jamaica for a couple of weeks, as I am every now and then and go to the theatre practically every night and see a different play. I think this was started by Trevor Rhone, with his Barn Theatre. He and Yvonne Brewster started the Barn Theatre by just taking a little barn that they had at the back of Brewster's house and turning into a theatre
and now almost every barn in the city is a little theatre and many people write these plays and the plays are very well attended and there's a lot of money to be made from them. As a result of this, I don't think that the quality of the work done is such that one necessarily wants to preserve them. I would have to look hard and long before I would think of putting out an anthology of these plays for instance and I'm very conscious of leaving things for posterity. That's why I spend most of my time now researching and writing, but this is a fact, that there is a great deal of theatre being done in Jamaica and it's done in the dialect and it's a lot of sex and a little bit of violence and people love it; it's very entertaining and it's not a great deal of serious thought except in work being done by Sistren and work being done by the Drama School which they have in Jamaica.
Well, as I understand it, Sistren which was largely the brain-child of Honor Ford Smith began with her attempt, inspired by the Feminist Movement, to get ordinary Jamaican women to talk about their lives. They developed the plays themselves and I suppose that during the rehearsal period, those plays were given shape by Honor Ford Smith who is a trained dramatist,
but they became very well known and very well reputed in Jamaica. I was able to see just the very last play that they did - a two woman play by Honor and I've forgotten the name of her compatriot.......Carol Lawes, which in fact they did take up to the United States.
It's very well done, excellent work, but what is most important, I think, about that movement was getting in the ordinary Jamaican women to speak and to give them a sense of dignity and understanding about their lives and how those lives could be shaped and presented in an artistic form to a public audience. That I think is very exciting.
It's still a mystery to me how the Caribbean people who in fact have come from so many different backgrounds and ancestries could hope to fashion and formulate an identity that typifies, stands for what is Caribbean. I've been attending some lectures here in Barbados and heard Mervyn Alleyne. He's someone, if he's still here, you should certainly get to speak about this whole matter of Caribbean culture and Caribbean identity and vision. It's a melting pot, everybody knows that. There's no doubt that the African and in some of the territories, the Indian ancestry, predominate and therefore one expects to find a greater search among those descendants for those things that would link them to their past. One has to be very careful about this. Viv Richards, as you know got himself into hot water by talking about the cricket team as being African peoples when in fact Rohan Kanhai and any number of Indian players - people of Indian descent have contributed magnificently to our cricket. So, any vision has got to be broad.
The most exciting thing at the present time, in the Caribbean, for me is the spread of Carnival to the metropoles overseas. What is it that inspires Caribbean peoples - Trinidadians, Barbadians, Jamaicans - to come together and put on their Carnivals in places like London, Toronto, Brooklyn, Miami? I guess if they went in sufficient numbers, to any country in Europe, it would be the same thing.
What is it about this festival that brings them together in such a joyous celebration of life at a time, mind you, when the Caribbean is going through some very tough economic times? I mean, Trinidad is really having a rough time economically now. Yet still, the Carnival that I saw two week ago would not suggest that. So there must be some enduring satisfaction in the whole experience that leaves people to not only themselves participate, but to bring it to a foreigner. Well, it's anybody's guess and when we talk about using the elements of the Carnival to give us an identity through our dances and our music and etcetera. It seems that we can't be too far off the mark because it's there already. All we're doing as artists is trying to pick and select and re-order these elements of the dances, the Sailor dance, the Robber talk etcetera and put them into dramas and dances and musics.
I heard that the Englishman, Paul Hill, who has been coming down to Trinidad regularly, he's an Englishman who spent some time in Trinidad with the British Council and when he left, he kept returning regularly as an adjudicator for the Steelband Music Festival which is different from Panorama. This is where they play classical music and do much better I think, than they do at Carnival time, but he has taken some of the folk music and arranged it in classical forms to be played by steelbands. Now, he wasn't the first to do this. The first man to do this was Joseph Griffith, a Barbadian who was with the police band in Trinidad and who actually wrote a classical piece called Ping Pong Rondo for a performance of my play, The Ping Pong way back in the 1950s, but it's only an example to show how other people, besides myself and those few involved in making this connection between the Carnivals and the art forms, have been doing it and having been showing what can be done. There's a danger. There's a danger that I see - one can mention the Jamaican experience in their theatre - of not realising how difficult it is to do this successfully, of taking the easy way out.
Of course, I have advocated years ago, decades ago, the use of Creole, but I don't think anything is to be gained by simply taking the Creole and putting it on the stage as is spoken. I mean, the great poets and the great writers didn't take English just as it is spoken and put it on the stage. The artist has to reform and re-fashion what he wants to say and do and do it in such a way to be pleasing, to be exciting to his audience.
Well as you know Peter (Minshall), Peter is a very controversial figure. I have brought him up to my college in fact to do the theatrical designs for a couple of productions there and he's done magnificently. He's a very, very talented man. I saw Tantana, which was his latest Carnival production and I understand how he introduces a sense of theatre both in the designs of his costumes and in what his masqueraders are supposed to do with those costumes
and I think that it's fine. It may be that the Parade of the Bands is not the place totake on this theatre, just as it's not the place for the Robber to give his Robber Talk. There's too much going on, but I'm sorry I missed Peter's attempt to take his band down to the Sport's Stadium and to show a theatrical piece developing out of the band. I think that's fine.
There has been some articles in the Press saying that Carnival is Carnival; you can never make it into theatre. Well, experiments are there to be done and as I say, although on the Carnival days, it would be difficult to get the kind of quiet reflection to put on theatre, yet still there's a lot to be done. My Dimanche Gras show, Whistling Charlie and the Monster - that was in 1964, was perhaps one of the most public satires of the PNM and the Opposition. Public satire before that ten or fifteen thousand people in Dimanche Gras and that was an attempt not to turn Carnival into theatre, but to use the Carnival figures with a theme of political satire attacking both sides, not partisan and having the audience in stitches. It can be done and the audience were prepared to sit and listen - which they don't do nowadays
because there's too much noise - as Russell Winston, the commentator did a great deal of the speaking in which the political satire was built. Of course we weren't invited to do the Dimanche Gras the following year, but that's another story.