It is 1968; the Guyana Broadcasting Service (radio) is being born. I’m leaving Rose Bruford Drama College to attend a three-month BBC course in radio and television broadcasting. Then I’m back in Guyana to discover that the only television is in the Prime Minister’s home!
However, the GBS building is ready and the staff is in place … and what a lineup of talents, but most without extensive radio experience.
To name just a few and risk the rightful wrath of others: the future media giant Hugh Cholmondeley is the boss; folklorist Wordsworth McAndrew; sportsman Reds Perreira; the future Sir Ron Sanders; musician/actor Clairmonte Taitt; artist Ron Savory; news-hound Cecil Griffith. Each of us brings a unique set of skills and talents and we will make GBS the “peoples’ station”.
We produced one-to-one interviews, documentaries, lots of live outside broadcasts and, among other things, I produced radio plays. It was a wild and wonderful ride.
My return from Drama College gave me more prominence at the Theatre Guild – and although there were several people doing great work there and throughout the country, I was now considered the “local drama expert”.
Then came the first ever CARIFESTA in 1972 – a brash and epic idea turned real. It was a cultural and political success story; however it appears to me now that its sheer epic scope has tended to overburden some of the later productions.
Tenders were out to local architects for the design of the planned National Cultural Centre and I was invited to consult with one of the architects.
Heady with innovative ideas, we submitted [the idea for] a horseshoe thrust stage that was, of course, lost to what is now a very standard proscenium stage.
I was then seconded to be the liaison officer of the then fledgling Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU), an amalgam of radio and television stations throughout the Caribbean. As its liaison officer I headed a changing team of experienced broadcasters to all the English-speaking territories.
We produced thirty half-hour radio documentaries (Project One) about the cultural, social and political landscapes. This CBU experience was my Columbus Day – I had “discovered the Caribbean” with its rich mélange of accents, rhythms, and visual recipe. My repertoire has since contained most of the staples of language, nuance and culture of those exciting times.
Coincidentally, at about the same time, Guyanese actor/poet Slade Hopkinson performed his one-man show at the Theatre Guild.
His program was in three parts – his own poetry, Shakespeare and Caribbean literature and poetry. I observed that the audience responses to the latter were overwhelmingly more enthusiastic; and at that moment I had my epiphany.
It was the trigger to my HE-ONE show – a half-reading, half-learnt presentation of Caribbean oral/aural poetry, story and excerpts of plays. I was freeing myself from the complex demands of production of plays.
That “historic” day was May 23rd 1973. Five months later, with the added creative mind and dynamism of Marc Matthews, the DEM-TWO was born, and one year later there was the next obvious growth spurt with Henry Muttoo and John Agard – the ALL-AH-WE.
During the next four years, we traversed the islands presenting the Caribbean to the Caribbean. We performed the poetry, stories, songs, literatures of the region, and everywhere we surprised audiences with our and their “Caribbeanness”.
Looking back, it has recently occurred to me that even our racial appearances must have been an unwitting but unique aspect of our success; there were – “an obvious mix-breed (me), a black/buck man (Marc), a putagee/coolie (Henry) and the quintessential redman (John). We were the authentic Caribbean”.
It is difficult in hindsight to assess if and what were our influences on the theatre or cultural scenes.
Small gestures happen. My wife Elizabeth and I were recently in-transit at Grenada’s airport and a man about 40 years old asked if I was Marc Matthews (of course I said yes to the compliment) and without urging he related how he was in the audience at a DEM-TWO show at the Combermere High School in Barbados some 30 years earlier, and how he could still remember some of the poems and jokes.
Trinidadian Christopher Laird of Banyan Studios has publicly noted that seeing the DEM-TWO performance in Trinidad was a direct influence of his future perception and practice of theatre and the arts, and ultimately what his all-Caribbean television station, Gayelle TV, has become. I treasure those moments.
At this time my father died (1976), and my mother ten years later. It is then that you become persistently aware of your own mortality. I try to “joke” it off by saying that I still have my big brother Percy and my sister Joyce ahead of me, but Percy died seven years ago and so I now tell Joyce in Tobago, “Hold on Joycie love, hold on”.
After a one-year stint (1974) as artistic director of Theatre Guild Playhouse, I was again seconded, this time to the Department of Culture as Director of Drama.
I focused on the broader Guyana by running creative weekend workshops in New Amsterdam, Linden, Bartica and Anna Regina. Two Theatre Guilders joined me there – Monty Blackmore (lighting technician) and Henry Muttoo.
We researched, designed and built a scale model of what we thought would be the ideal Guyana and Caribbean theatre. We embodied the Hindu Temple circle, an outdoor concept, flexible staging and audience relationship, and inexpensive homemade lighting facility.
The other members of the Cultural Department were eminently uninterested.
Later, we took that model to St. Lucia for the first meeting of the Theatre Information Exchange (TIE) that was an association of Caribbean theatre activists. (See Photograph).
Henry attended the conference despite being denied the leave or permission by the Cultural Department. On his return, he was fired as my assistant in the cultural department, and incredulously, unofficially banned from getting ANY job from anybody in Guyana. Lots of those untold stories abound out of our “dear land of Guyana”.
As fate would have it, this setback turned out to be the best thing to happen to him. He went to England, and trained as a theatre designer. During that time, as TIE’s coordinator, I organized a special fund-raising throughout the Caribbean theatre community to keep him in the school until he graduated.
He is now the artistic director of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. From there he has produced the annual GIMISTORY FESTIVALS to which I’ve been invited every year. As you read this I’ll be there for the eleventh time.
My Theatre Guild, Theatre Information Exchange, Caribbean Broadcasting Union, DEM-TWO and ALL-AH-WE experiences have forged lasting and precious friendships with very many dedicated and talented artists of all kinds throughout the region and, now, the scattered Diaspora.
Naming names will be a no-win exercise – Elizabeth and I began the count and after 63 we stopped and knew that I dare not go there. She reminds me that there are also the myriad of poets, musicians, writers that have generously allowed me to tap their mighty banks of literary and language wonders that have fueled my programs and moved audiences through these wild and wonderful years on very different stages.
In 1979 I migrated to Barbados to coordinate the Theatre Information Exchange. On leaving Guyana, I applied to the National Bank to convert some money to US dollars, and bold face so, the manager looked me in the eye and said: “The Government considers you a traitor and therefore you can’t get any money”.
I left Guyana with US$75 in my pocket. I have never been “detraitorized”. TIE held workshops and conferences and exchanged information about our activities.
Within two years there was an unprecedented amount of inter-connections. The funding eventually ran its course. It was a two-year no strings or interference funding by the Inter-American Foundation out of Washington DC.
I eventually spent seventeen years in Barbados and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity. Barbados was always in my “mind’s eye”, ever since I spent nine ideal months there at the Cable and Wireless school right after leaving St. Stanislaus College, learning the then telegraphic techniques of receiving and sending Morse Code to return to Guyana and work at C&W for 17 years.
Barbados was a safe and comfortable island with every convenience to fly to and from anywhere in the region. It became my jumping off point to solo performances and designing and directing plays in the islands. During that time, I was presenter and co-writer of the still popular television documentary series “Caribbean Eye” which was thirteen half-hour documentaries on the arts and cultures of the region. It was produced by Banyan of Trinidad and led by Christopher Laird (Gayelle TV).
Best of all, my Barbados sojourn culminated with the most rewarding of happenstances – I met (and was totally enamoured by) a Peace Corps member who later returned as a student of anthropology researching the arts of Barbados for her doctoral dissertation. Elizabeth Barnum and I were married in 1994; she worked in Barbados for a year with the prestigious Earthworks Pottery, and then in early 1996 we came to America where she is an administrator at Stony Brook University in Long island.
America has been another life, and a good one – my range of potential audiences has expanded to include the American storytelling community, and the Guyanese and Caribbean Diaspora. I tell in cafes, colleges, after dinner events, high school alumni events, storytelling and comedy festivals, conferences. My repertoire has also extended to more personal stories, particularly nostalgia of growing up and living in Guyana and the Caribbean. Along the way I’ve received ten awards of varying tenuous importance, but the one that I may tack on to my signature may be the OBE – Over Bloody Eighty – which I won’t necessarily recommend to everybody.
Inspired by my friends Godfrey Chin and Reds Perreira who have recently published their successful autobiographical books, and prompted and encouraged by Ameena Gafoor, founder of THE ARTS FORUM Inc and editor of the literary journal THE ARTS JOURNAL, I have begun the process of writing my memoirs into an eventual published book. This three-part story in Kaieteur News contains some of the bare bones or skeleton of my memoirs.
Ken’s youtube page with 34 videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/caribvoies
His website: www.caribvoices.com
The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached on e-mail: [email protected] or by telephone: 592 227 6825.
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