ISSUE 11.4

PERFORM/TRANSFORM

An Interview with Tony Hall, Trinidadian Theatre Artist and Teacher

Performers in Trinidad Carnival 1982. Photo by Jennifer Williams Shaffeeullah

Written by Jane Heather

“Culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.

. . . Culture in under-developed countries should therefore take its place at the very heart of the struggle for freedom.”

– Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 188, 232

About 35 years ago, Tony Hall and I were in a gang together. Tony is a playwright and actor, screenwriter and filmmaker, director and theatre facilitator. For eight years, I talked with Tony, listened to Tony, wrote with him, performed with him, and laughed and laughed and laughed with him, sometimes every day. We talked politics and theatre and laughed some more and did some skits together.

One of the scenes nearly got him shot. Frank Pelligrino was an actor and an anarchist wannabe naïf. And me?—I was supposed to be some kind of Marxist feminist theatre worker, but I didn’t know the scene would end with De Beers security chasing Tony through the Edmonton Centre mall. Those cops had guns, and there was Tony, running up the stairs, yelling “Freedom! Freedom!” I didn’t know they would hold him for hours.

Tony knew. Later he said:

I knew I would be arrested or held, and I knew I would stick to the story: I am a teacher. I was in the mall waiting for my wife, looking at the De Beers diamond display, when this white woman in a fur coat handed me a pink plastic shovel, put a rope around my neck, called me ‘boy,’ and ordered me to dig her some diamonds. I was afraid. I ran.

They held him in the basement of the mall for four hours. Tony held his ground, told them the same story again and again, and eventually they released him.

I was the white woman in the Sally Ann fur coat with lots of rhinestone jewelry. Frank was my Italian security guy in a suit and mirrored aviator sunglasses. I stood on the steps, yelled, “You! Boy!”, pointed at Tony, and muscled my way through the crowd of jewelry-browsing Edmontonians. I handed him the shovel, told him to dig up the diamonds, and put a yellow nylon rope around his neck. Then we were surrounded. They had that rope off Tony’s neck in an instant while I argued with the security cops. I never did get to sing a chorus of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

As Tony sprinted up the stairs, yelling, with both arms stretched above his head, Frank and I were left standing with the shovel and rope; and the Free South Africa Committee hastily handed out pamphlets about De Beers, and South Africa, and apartheid. Then we dispersed to wait.

Tony maintains that despite the fact that he could have been shot, it was a vital action. It was 1979. Most people didn’t know much about apartheid or its connection to De Beers. Because malls are private property, no one is allowed to pamphlet there. In those pre-Internet days, pamphlets were important. De Beers had a big diamond display in the mall, and the Free South Africa Committee wanted to get their information to people. The theatre was designed to distract so that they could distribute.

It worked perfectly. Tony didn’t get shot. Some people got some information they didn’t have before. And as a settler Canadian of European decent, I was educated about white privilege: I didn’t even notice that the guards had guns—not until Tony was running.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS CHARACTER

Tony moved home to Trinidad. I knew he was doing a lot of work with Carnival, including teaching a Carnival class to American students from Hartford, but I wanted to learn more. In 2013 I went to visit and talk with him.

The day I attended Tony’s class, he had invited two guests. Previously in the course, Tony had introduced students to traditional masquerade (Mas) character. Both of the guests were in their 80s and had been playing Mas since they were children. Arthur “Fires” Stephens plays King Fancy Sailor, and Narrie Approu plays Black Indian.

These remarkable performers appeared before the students in their costumes, showed them their dances, and taught them some of the chants and movements they make when playing Mas. Stephens and Approu were completely in the characters and the characters were in them; the discipline and precision were brilliant. The central “play” of the characters; the elaborate costumes; the movement, props, and actions were all hinged to these wise, loving, generous culture keepers. They were wry and gentle. But the Black Indian was also fierce and ready to fight. Serious and hilarious. Sacred and profane. Earthy and spiritual.

I could see that this was decolonization. Darrel Wildcat (1) says, “Every time you do theatre you are decolonizing people” (qtd. in Prentki and Selman 21)—-not all theatre, but a particular kind of community-based, popular theatre that incorporates popular cultural forms, indigenous languages, songs, dances, performance styles, and storytelling into theatre making. Michael Etherton and Ross Kidd (2) were instrumental in engaging people around the world in using “popular culture forms”-—theatre and performance—-to support decolonization and social justice. Both Tony and I were influenced by Etherton and Kidd, so it doesn’t surprise me that Carnival form and emancipation were the starting points for Tony’s current work as an artist and with his class.

Tony Hall and Jane Heather. Photo by Mary Hall

J. H. Tell me about the course. What are you aiming for with these students?

T. H. We begin by looking at emancipation and slavery. What does emancipation mean? What did the Africans who came off the plantations with nothing to do experience? How was emancipation celebrated?

We examine the kind of masking that they remembered from Africa, and how they made what they remembered, a celebration of their freedom. We look at that and how the authorities tried to curtail that process of celebration. How the rules and the banning of certain Carnival activities created or launched other activities.

The Carnival today has two main threads: What we remember from African masquerade, and the European Mardi Gras. There is also a very strong Amerindian thread. The African thread is very different from the beads and shit, pretty Mas, bikinis, and so on. When people talk or write about Carnival, it’s usually focused on European Carnival. All the stuff Mikhail Bahktin talks about, reversal and all of that, pertains to the European Carnival and less to the African-derived masque. The European Carnival King was this drunken, obese, slobbering guy; the masses play the king and the overturning of the social order. Trinidad Carnival king is an African king, and the huge costume he has on is an extension of the mask. That is something we only understand when we look at some parts of West Africa and see how people decorate their houses. There, the idea is you live in your art. At Carnival, we say you wear your art, you carry your art on your back, you dance your art. Our studies are focused on the African stream. What is the African content? How does it manifest in Carnival?

NOW WE DON’T REMEMBER ALL OF IT. BUT WE REMEMBER SOME OF IT

J. H. Where do the traditional Mas characters come from?

T. H. In the Akan and Yoruba tradition there is a secret order, mostly men, who have a responsibility to manifest certain characters at certain times throughout the year. This is done to warn the community about various things. Let us say you and I are members of a secret order. You wouldn’t know I manifest as an Ashes Devil; I wouldn’t know that you manifest as kind of clown. On a Saturday morning, you look out of your hut and you see me as an Ashes Devil coming through the trace. You would immediately know I have a message, like a famine, and by appearing I am warning the community of what is impending. Or it may be less dramatic than that. It may be you are having some problems with your son and I know about the problems and I am coming to “manners” your son, I’m coming to discipline your son.

What we did coming out of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth was recreate these characters. Some, like Midnight Robber, bear some African traits and some American traits. Early Midnight Robbers were Texas bad men, so they are taking stuff from the cowboys. People who play Black Indian or Red Indian draw a lot from what they saw in New Orleans and what they saw coming up from Venezuela. Also they were infatuated by American movies. A lot of streams coming together, but the most important things were character.

At last count they have uncovered one hundred and forty-seven characters in the pantheon of characters.

IT IS CELEBRATING FREEDOM, BUT IT’S NOT REALLY HEDONISM

J. H. Carnival is advertised as “The World’s Biggest Party”—come to Trinidad, party all night and all day, package deal, costumes, hot women, mad excess, and much drinking. How do you unpack that with the students?

T. H. With the students, we say the emancipation energy is strong in the Carnival. When emancipation celebrations were curtailed, the African stream appeared. I try to identify how that stream manifests itself today, because it’s not easy to see.

The freedom party that Carnival is, the freedom celebration, is sophisticated. The understanding of freedom that most people bring here is this is a place where “anything goes.” Bacchanal. But it’s not that: there are guards, there are measures, there are codes. That is important to understand.

Performers at Trinidad Carnival 1982. Photo by Jennifer Williams Shaffeeullah

THIS AXIOM OF IDENTITY

J. H. Okay, Mas characters have pre-slavery, pre- emancipation roots. How do the characters function as emancipatory, as decolonization? How are they political?

T. H. In this society, there is difficulty in this axiom of identity and self. You come out of slavery and there is nothing for you to do. There is nothing for you. You’re a vagabond on the street, a hooligan; you sing Calypso; you stick fight, you steal, whatever. Whole hordes of people below the line of respectability.

The British created the Crown colony system, where they would send governors and flunky civil servants out to the colonies. People felt themselves diminished by the presence of the British even though the British were not present. The British were in charge. So people held onto Carnival real strong because that was a way to hold onto their identity in light of the British Imperial presence. Carnival had been banned in the past but it kept breaking through.

So the business of identity becomes crucial—the business of playing somebody. We gotta play somebody ‘cause we nothing, yeah? And what do they play? They play these impulses that we get. They see police and thieves running around; they play police and thieves.

These guys, at a very formidable and formative time in the culture and the society shaping itself, these guys identified archetypes for us. My argument is that even if all this disappears from the Carnival—it’s all gone, we don’t play any of these characters anymore—we have been given a form and a shape and a way of understanding ourselves, a way of coming to terms with certain situations and circumstances.

SEEING THROUGH YOUR OWN EYES – A SENSE OF BEING WHOLE

J. H. Could you track through your thinking over time about Carnival and how popular theatre and theatre of social justice fit into your work here?

T. H. What I have insisted on doing ever since I left Canada is to really see through my own eyes. Because of how we were educated here, and then going to Canada—you are taught that there are people that matter and the job is to see through their eyes. So you talk like them, you think like them, you see like them, then you OK, yeah? So the task has been to see through my own eyes. I used to do these sessions with David Barnet and Floyd Favel.(3) I have always been grateful to Floyd Favel. We would meet on a Wednesday night and go into a room at the University of Alberta, right? I remember one night David saying, “Okay, let us present, each one of us, our theatre. What is your theatre, whatever that means, your theatre.“ And I remember thinking, What? What? David did some crazy thing, jumped up on a table. And then Floyd did his thing, kind of a striptease [Tony does a version of a Cree song] taking off his pants. So I’m thinking, I have nothing, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? So I did a devil dance: [chanting] Pay the devil jab jab Pay the devil jab jab. Floyd stopped me:
Floyd: Wait a minute. Wait, what’s that?
Tony: Some devil shit
Floyd: No, no, no. I’ve never seen anything like it. That is your theatre. The way your body went into it, I’ve never seen you do that.

What Floyd pointed out to me is that there was an internality to look for that I hadn’t looked at before. In other words, there was something in me that was manifesting through the dance, some essence manifesting, therefore it became important to deconstruct it.

Floyd indicated a possible journey, but I didn’t know where to go. The thing that crystalized what I needed to do was meeting Michael Etherton. Etherton explained to me what popular theatre was, a form coming out of the people and their culture, with content that was emancipatory. Once I understood that, I could relate this Carnival to that, and it gave me an analysis of the Carnival. And that set me off to research African masquerade. Carnival is a Caribbean manifestation of the African masquerade. Then I could break down the characters and look at them in those terms.

I started to understand how sophisticated this process of character was and the role the Carnival played for these original people in Africa, and how that then evolved into the Trinidadian and Caribbean Mas character.

You had people who played doctor, you had people who played police and thief, you had people who played nurse. Now, I looked at those characters when I was doing the research, and I thought, This is ridiculous, how is that related to African masquerade? Until I simply said: I am interested in what was in people’s minds when they created these characters. I’m just going to go to students and say, These are the characters in the Trinidad Carnival. Which character calls to you? I asked them to talk about a time when they confronted some obstacle in their lives. Some moment when they felt: This is not going to happen, no, no I’m failing, I’m vanquished, and then some energy just—whoosh—and they get by. What is this? I say to them, If you could personify this energy, if at that point you turned into a character, what would that character be? Lo and behold, there were students who said things like: doctor and nurse.

I did workshops where people would find characters and put them in scenes and it would be a revelation to them. They would say to me, “I now feel whole. I now feel like I come from somewhere, belong somewhere. I used to always hear about all this ‘mas’ and all these characters and it just seemed like old stupidness. I am a bank manager. When carnival comes I don’t want to see all that old crap. I want to play something that shows me as a beautiful black person, feathers and beads.” The main thing they talk about is a sense of wellbeing. A sense of being whole.

People have to understand how those characters shaped who we are and use those forms and formulations, because that is what they are there for.

My new play is called Miss Miles Woman of the World, because Gene Miles, the main character, a real woman who blew the whistle on corruption, created and played a character in the Carnival called Miss Miles, Woman of the World. I have always thought we should be creating new characters. Miss Miles is a new character, based on this woman. I would like to do a band of them, ten of them coming down the street.

Performers at Trinidad Carnival 1982. Photo by Jennifer Williams Shaffeeullah

LOOK AT ME! CONFRONTATION AND PARTICIPATION

J. H. You’re describing an internal process, but there is an external performance as well. These characters interact with audiences at Carnival. Could you talk about that?

T. H. The traditional Mas characters have particular props, ways of talking, and ways of relating to other characters and to the audience. So if you are playing Black Indian, you are looking for another Black Indian to fight or confront in some way. If you are a Midnight Robber, you are looking for somebody to call a Mocking Pretender; if you are a Baby Doll, you are looking for the father of your child. I call it instant social action theatre. You are at Carnival and you think you are just audience, but the character has a very specific endowment for you. Midnight Robber doesn’t make you into the same person Baby Doll makes you into. It’s a peculiar kind of street theatre; it does not have a big audience. At any given time there might be an audience of four or five as you move down the street.

When you play a character on the street, there is something beyond that playing. The character issues a challenge: “Okay, you reach here and you know all of this. What you going to do with it?” The character is a kind of threshold, a realization for you to go be free and for you to be responsible. Playing the characters, in the end, is a challenge to help you to see something, bringing you to certain realizations, to clarify certain energies. Then what you gonna do with it? What action will you take?

Action. Being and action. That last part of what I call the emancipation cycle.

EMANCIPATE YOURSELF FROM MENTAL SLAVERY

J. H. So what’s the question most on your mind now?

T. H. What is freedom? That’s the question. That question connects now to the whole Caribbean experience. Kwame Ture’s point is that we all free and we always free, but in this dimension some people try to put some chains on us and we have to fight those chains. But no one can give us our freedom; we already have our freedom. Freedom isn’t something anyone can take from you or give you. This is the beauty of Marcus Garvey, who in a speech in Nova Scotia in 1934 talked about self-emancipation: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” Bob Marley got it from him.

NOTES

1 Darrel Wildcat was a Cree popular theatre worker from Maskwacis, Alberta. He was the co-founder of Four Winds Theatre.

2 Michael Etherton is a theatre director, author and educator who has worked extensively in Africa. His work, both theoretical and practical, has influenced popular theatre workers around the world. Ross Kidd is a Canadian adult educator who applied Paulo Frieire’s ideas to popular theatre in several African countries. He initiated a series of significant workshops in both the global South and North to strategize how popular theatre could be developed and disseminated.

3 David Barnet is a community-based theatre practitioner and professor at the University of Alberta; Floyd Favel is an Aboriginal playwright, actor, and director.

WORK CITED

Prentki, Tim, and Jan Selman. Popular Theatre in Political Culture: Britain and Canada in Focus. Bristol: Intellect, 2000.

Jane Heather has spent many years working to use theatre to make social change and is beginning to think it may be too slow. At the time of publication, she taught at the University of Alberta; wrote, directed, facilitated, and produced theatre; and lived in Edmonton, Alberta. In her next life stage, she expected to go to Blockadia and place her aging body between resource extractors and whoever is defending the land.

Tony Hall was a Trinidadian playwright who attended University of Alberta and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. He formulated Jouvay Popular Theatre Process out of emancipation performance traditions. His plays included the acclaimed Jean and Dinah . . . Speak Their Minds Publicly (1994) and his screen credits include the BBC-TV documentary And the Dish Ran Away with The Spoon with Banyan. Tony collaborated extensively in Trinidad Carnival and lectured at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.