“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.