This weekend I return to the theatre after an absence of 23 years spent in the politics. It is part of a journey back to my independence, started a year ago and which includes the writing of this column.
I had been in the theatre for 22 years before entering politics; a sojourn with learning value, notwithstanding the hollowness. I went there with idealism and bruised my head severely against the barrenness, decadence, and corruption of a cancerous and conscienceless political culture that continues to fester in the spreading swampland of Trinidad
Having experienced it, I am more driven than ever to change it.
This country will crash without political and social transformation. Freed from previous constraints, I feel I am engaging my
society more meaningfully now. With the 56 articles so far in this space, I have felt myself wrestling with the entire monster; the whole intellectual wasteland of political parties, parliament, cabinet, governance and culture
in this endangered country. The exhilaration has returned and I write, direct and act with the vigour of a liberated spirit.
So on to the theatre which must be a potent social force. It must contribute to national transformation. Shallow entertainment will not do with society teetering on the brink. The stage is a sacred place. Whatever the role or play, tragedy or comedy, on stage, you enter the holy ground of one of the oldest traditions and art forms of human civilisation that has produced some of the best that ever lived, and which has always refined both individual and society.
Today, we desperately need a theatre where, “the play’s the thing” to stir “the conscience of the king” and country. We have enough silly clowns off stage, so when we tread the boards, even to generate laughter, we should be provocative like Shakespeare’s Fools, particularly that piercing personality in Lear, who nearly made the King mad with remembrance of his enormous error.
We need such a Fool here. For what else is there to save us now except art. Politics, academia and religion have all failed to prevent the decline. Only the creative minds like Naipaul, Selvon, CLR, Errol John, Best, Williams, Lovelace and some others have said anything worth remembering.
Decades ago, in an address as the president of the National
Drama Association, I said: “Theatre is power and any practitioner who has not felt it is either dead or needs another baptism. Theatre
is not escape as is so much of ordinary entertainment. Theatre is real, ancient, virile and enduring; it is touching, tender and turbulent; forceful, free and frightening; can make you merry and bring you peace but can also shatter you and remake you in its search for truth. “It is that hallowed ground of fearlessness where we encounter sinners and saints, nakedness and disguise, piousness and treachery, salvation and damnation and where we drink the wine that astonishes us with revelation.”
I continued: “A society without its art is a people undiscovered
and unexplored, a nation bewildered, quixotic and vulnerable. And so today, now more than ever, Trinidad and Tobago needs the theatre. “And it does not need it as an opiate to escape the pestilential gloom now overwhelming us.
The country needs the theatre as much as it needs all intellectual and soulful endeavour that seeks to rip the masks and reveal the masqueraders; expose the selfishness that poses as patriotism; deride the individualism that makes a mockery of sacrifice; sharpen discriminatory powers so that platitudes and pomposity are not taken for visioneering and the genuine thinker is separated from the pedestrian regurgitator. The theatre must be strong to make the people stronger.”
Over 20 years ago, I continued, “It has been a long dry season for the national soul. We must now go further than before, leave behind
the mimickry and repetition and shape the possibility of a true indigenous heroism. To do so we must move away from paltry preoccupations and face those larger and liberating issues, like eternity and the absurdity that death seems to make of life.
We must ourselves discover the peace that is a healing amidst the pain of living. In this blistering drought, the rain we must bring is wisdom.” This is the kind of theatre I want as, like Prospero, I again don the garments of a potent art. As I reenter, I am enriched by memory of roles played: Romeo, Mark Antony, Macbeth, Shylock, Eddie Carbone, Jack Boyle, Dr Prentice, Marquis de Sade, Papa in Man Better Man, Ranee in Called to the Bar, and Bim among others.
I carry with reverence, the opportunities given and the skills imparted by my guru, James Lee Wah, father of theatre in San Fernando
and pivotal architect nationally. I cherish the experience of having acted with the best: Mavis Lee Wah, Sullivan Walker, Clyde Earl, Melville Foster, Errol Jones, Stanley Marshall, Claude Reid, Audrey Alleyene, Maria Byron and others.
I am fortified by having worked with an army of talents who under my direction, carried my own plays: Shekhar Mahabir, Hubert Ramlal,
Toodesh Ramesar, Wendell Jones, Cheryl Blackman, Suresh Maharaj,
Susilla Maraj, Jacqulin Cheesman, Jacqulin Suepaul, Chandrashekar Maharaj, Sherwin Guisseppi, Devesh Maharaj, Ricardo Meade, Beverly Seupaul, Sheereen Mohip, Peter Andrews, Denesh Maharaj, Roger Browne, Adesh Denarine, Jeremy Jagroopsingh, Novack George, Richard
Bickram, Willard Gopaul, and others including Devindra Dookie and Errol “Blood” Roberts, early in their careers.
Many of the latter group have already joined the revival and others have signalled they are returning.
The army is regrouping; a mission being reborn. So watch out Trinbago! We were a force in the eighties and, for our country, we will do it again as we return to the sacred stage.
Ralph Maraj is a playwright, director, actor.