Since his death, on March 7, 2017, much has been written about Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott the poet, but very few tributes have focused specifically on his theatre, while specialized journals have almost ignored publications by critics from the Caribbean, his region of origin.
Now, colleagues and collaborators from the theatre world have come together for Critical Stages, to publish a special tribute to Walcott, whose many plays and theatrical productions have drawn attention to drama in this part of the English speaking world.
We thought it would be fitting to give voice to Caribbean artists who represent the various phases of Walcott’s theatrical life, especially since these comments that we have chosen are, until now, unpublished.
Derek Alton Walcott was born on January 23, 1930, on the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. He was the son of Warwick Walcott, an amateur painter and poet who worked in the Government’s Civil Service, and Alix Walcott, the Headmistress of the Methodist Primary School. The Walcott couple had three offspring, Pamela, the only girl, and the twins, Derek and Roderick.
Warwick Walcott died at the age of thirty-one from Mastoiditis, when Derek was only one year old; an event that would haunt the writer throughout his life, as Derek felt committed to fulfill his father’s artistic dreams.
Indeed, from their very early childhood, the Walcott twins displayed an interest in staging skits with the other children in their neighborhood. Their artistic leanings were also influenced by their mother who herself recited Shakespeare at home and staged theatre productions at school.
Perhaps the most significant influences on Walcott’s career, however, were his formal education at St. Mary’s College as well as his informal education by his mentor Harold Simmons. Saint Mary’s College was a secondary school for boys established by the British colonial authorities. It was at Saint Mary’s College that Walcott fell in love with the English Language, English Literature and the classics. It was also here that he began studying French, Latin and became deeply moved by the classics—in particular, Greek Theatre. During this period, the Walcott twins were also influenced by Harold Simmons, a family friend. Simmons was a painter and folklorist who cultivated in the young Walcotts a passion for the indigenous, for the physical beauty of the island of Saint Lucia, as well as its people and culture.
At fourteen, Walcott published his first poem in “The Voice of Saint Lucia” and, at eighteen, he published his first collection of poems. In 1950, when he was twenty years old, Derek, Roddy and some of their contemporaries established the Saint Lucia Arts Guild, a theatre group that would stage his first play, Henri Christophe, written in verse, Elizabethan style, about the Haitian Revolution and subsequent independence.
That same year, Derek won a scholarship to continue studying the Arts at the University College of the West Indies, in Jamaica. There, he wrote and staged Ione, a play set in Saint Lucia but drawing from the Greek classics. Saint Lucia had become the mythical Helen of Troy as the island had been the centre of a bitter rivalry between the British and the French colonial forces for nearly four centuries.
Walcott continued to study, write and practice theatre after his university studies, while moving, travelling, teaching and conducting workshops through various islands in the Caribbean—in particular, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago. In 1957, he won a Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study theatre but returned to the Caribbean, one year later, to write and direct Drums and Colours, an historical saga to mark the inauguration of the West Indies Federation.
The Division of Culture of the government of Trinidad and Tobago credits Derek Walcott, along with his brother Roderick, Trinidadian dancer Beryl McBurnie and actors Errol Jones, Stanley Marshall and a few other actors, for the establishment of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in the year 1959.
In Trinidad, Walcott settled and continued training actors and producing plays from the Caribbean and beyond. Through the Trinidadian Workshop, Walcott was able to develop and produce some of his most successful plays, including Ti Jean and His Brothers, Dream on Monkey Mountain, and The Joker of Seville.
Walcott moved to the U.S.A. in 1981 to take up a teaching position at Boston University. There, he founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and taught and practiced theatre for about twenty years. Walcott was not only a talented dramatist but he was also a prodigious and prolific poet. Throughout his career, he published nearly two dozen plays and almost twenty collections of poetry.
2 PHOTO [Walcott and Travis Weekes with the cast of Ti Jean and His Brothers at the Alliance française, St. Lucia 2014]
In 1992, soon after his publication of the Homeric epic, Omeros, Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Upon receiving the prize, he began to relocate to his homeland Saint Lucia, eventually resettling on the island and continuing his work till his death in March 17, 2017.
*Travis Weekes is a St. Lucian actor, poet, playwright and cultural critic whose work focuses on the impact of Creole traditions/discourse on the theatre of Nobel Prize winning playwright Derek Walcott. Currently a Lecturer in Caribbean Studies and Communication Studies at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in St. Lucia, Weekes has recently completed his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies with the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, with a dissertation on the drama of Derek Walcott.
Early Stagings of Walcott’s Theatre in Trinidad
My contact with Derek Walcott was through my staging, at various points in my career, of some of his plays. Ti-Jean and His Brothers became a signature production which I first directed as an undergraduate for the University Players in Jamaica and later took on a regional tour in 1973. In 1974, I directed the play as a teacher at Point Fortin College, Trinidad, and again, in 1987, as the first production of UWI’s Creative Arts Centre.
I was invited, but never joined, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. While I have great respect and love for Walcott’s plays, I knew I could find no place there. Still a fledgling director, I shared my instinctive response with a friend as we left Walcott’s room: “Walcott is a god; and gods consume.” In any case, what I wanted to do with theatre was very different from the work of TTW, significant as that had been to the Caribbean.
I may well own the distinction of twice directing Dream on Monkey Mountain and seeing neither production. The first was done at the Jamaica School of Drama in 1983 and opened the evening after my departure from Jamaica on another assignment. The second was with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop for their participation in a European theatre festival sometime in the 1990s. I walked away from that production after the producer’s and writer’s interference in the process. Both productions, I understand, had successful showings.
In completion was also the fate of another and more memorable Walcott play I directed in 1998, Drums and Colours. That year marked the 50th anniversary of the University of the West Indies, which had commissioned Walcott’s historical epic for the 1960 launch of the West Indian Federation. This play has not, to my knowledge, been produced since then. The UWI Creative Arts Centre production was itself historic in that it brought together students, academic and administrative staff. Our efforts at a broader, more inclusive representation were curtailed by a workers strike on Campus, a situation which also prevented the public from seeing the show. We, nonetheless, performed one weekend for a Campus audience and Walcott himself appreciated seeing a rehearsal during one of his post-Broadway visits. This production was an important part of my own directorial growth, in that the play allowed me to explore, as fully as I could at that time, a Carnival aesthetic.
Apart from the plays, Walcott’s theatre legacy is evidently the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, as a company of trained and talented actors, whose work formed a benchmark for theatre production in the English-speaking Caribbean. Above all, Walcott is the great poet of our theatre.
**Rawle Gibbons is a playwright and director, born in Trinidad and Tobago. His plays are published in Calypso Trilogy (Ian Randle, 1999) and Love Trilogy (Canboulay and Arawak Publishers, 2012). He served as President of the Caribbean Arts Network, CARIBNET, from 2008 to 2014. In 2016, he retired from teaching theatre at the University of the West Indies. At present, Gibbons coordinates a regional programme of indigenous, creative education, Caribbean Yard Campus. Gibbons has contributed immensely to the development of theatre across the English speaking Caribbean.
Early Experiences with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop
I worked with Derek Walcott in the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, as an actor, for one year, 1973-74. We both romanticized the notion of my being the “young apprentice” to the Master Artist. Then, we worked together periodically till 1981. The two original projects that were important during this time were Joker of Seville and O’Babylon.
The Joker was supposed to be an adaptation of the seventeenth century Spanish classic, Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla, the story of Don Juan. Instead, Derek wrote his own version, using as his metaphor the model of a stick fight arena or Gayelle, based in a Trinidadian village, San Juan.
This work experimented with an approach to language that the setting and historical time presented. Derek would create watercolor renditions of the action and then write the characters’ dialogue next to the figures, in a most expressive penmanship.
The reference Derek used for his palette and costuming was the work of Diego Velasquez. I had this romantic notion of bringing to life these watercolors of Derek’s version of Velasquez emerging out of rural Trinidad. What fun. This was the first incarnation of The Joker of Seville.
The second project, O’Babylon, was a musical about the origin of the Rastafari religion on the island of Jamaica and the plight of one Rasta settlement in the ghetto of Kingston. Derek insisted that he use Trinidadian actors, stating that we were a West Indian theatre company doing West Indian material even if the text was centred on a Jamaican phenomenon.
Derek was always a West Indian Federalist. He came from a generation of West Indian artists who believed that the West Indies was one nation. He was a St. Lucian who had gone to the University of the West Indies, in Jamaica, and then moved to Trinidad to live and do his work. Unfortunately, the West Indies Federation that that generation hoped for only lasted from 1958 to 1962 and then dissolved, but this integrative process was always expressed by the way Derek created and promoted his work, and also by its content and structure.
In 1976, the theatre company was to represent Trinidad and Tobago at Carifesta, the Caribbean Arts Festival, held in Jamaica that year. The Trinidad government wanted him to present Ti Jean, but Derek was adamant insisting that O’Babylon concerned what was happening precisely at that period in history, in 1976, and that this is what our “vocation” calls upon us to do. The government capitulated and Derek had his way.
The company was very cautious upon arrival in Jamaica. We were regaled with stories about what the Rastas planned to do if they did not like O’Babylon. Break down the theatre. Storm the stage!
On opening night, one Mortimo Planno, who is Bob Marley’s spiritual father, was up in the balcony of the theatre with drums and a huge cadre of his Rastafarian youth brigade. We only learned of this backstage, as the first musical bars of O’Babylon were rendered.
My character, General Sufferer, has a speech where he explains the origin and meaning of Rastafari to the protagonist in the play Rude Bwoy. As I launch into this monologue, I hear what sounds to me like the most awful ruction, coming from the balcony. I think, well, this is it. They hate it!
As the drumming continues it hits us that they have stopped the play to rejoice! General Sufferer’s speech that night was the most marvelous it has ever been, with real Nyah Binghi drums punctuating it. A celebration all around! I have never experienced anything like it in the theatre. According to Derek, the Caribbean artist is a revolutionary.
***Tony Hall, (born July 16, 1948) is a Trinidadian playwright with the Lordstreet Theatre Company, based in Port of Spain. Hall’s play MISS MILES the Woman of the World premiered in Port of Spain, in October 2011, and opened in Hartford, CT, in April 2014. Hall received a Life Time Award in 2013 from the National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago for his contribution to the theatre
I knew Roderick Walcott as long as I could remember. My mother went to Teacher Alix’s house, Roderick’s mother, religiously every Saturday afternoon to sew. She had been headmistress at the Methodist school where my mother had been inducted into the finer art of couture as a young girl. Roddy, as he was affectionately called, was an outgoing spirit, always racing down the rickety wooden stairs with his young nephew Nigel, to the chagrin of Teacher Alix, who saw visions of an impending disaster that never came. However, there was another, Roddy’s twin brother, Derek, always sitting in the light, close to a window, his huge head perpetually buried in a book.
Writing this short piece brought back quite vividly how I was scared of this guy as a child. I could not have been more than five and remember this huge oval shaped head (like a dinosaur egg) buried perpetually in a book. Never heard him utter a word, or moved from his chosen spot, in the light, by the window. Never knew our paths would cross later in life, close enough to consider him a friend. I never knew when he disappeared. Years later, I heard, he left for university.
My first close encounter with Derek was as young adult, while directing Joumard (one of his short plays). On December 13, 1967, Castries was to be raised from the status of town to city, and the Saint Lucia Arts Guild was expected to put on a production worthy of the occasion. Until then, our encounters were always at arm’s length. Derek spoke in monosyllables and looked through me as if I was a whiff of air, penetrable and, no doubt, invisible. I was working with Roddy on the production of Sounds of a City, a revue that traced the history of Castries from the seventeenth century to modern times. Roddy had written most of the script and I had helped him with some verses on Castries, which later morphed into the poem Castries Revisited.
Joumard is a short early play by Derek about some bums roaming about town in search of their next shot of rum and going to elaborate lengths to achieve this end. Finally, one Easter morning, they decided to enact the death and resurrection of one of their followers, Joumard, the rest is tragedy. Hence, the alternate name of the play: “A comedy, until the last minute.”
I was busy working on an entrance scene with one of the characters, Bap. There was a problem with the flats; they were too close to allow Bap to enter with a coffin on his head. We corrected this, but there came another: where does Bap place the coffin? I agreed to stage centre. We practiced entrance, placement and exit, without a hitch. I overcame my nervous fits and nearing seven called a full rehearsal. Roddy arrived at the back of the hall with somebody; I did not pay much attention. I was tense; everything had to go right, or else . . .
The opening scene went like clockwork. Dunstan as Joumard was finding his feet. Since we were using a real coffin, Gonnard dropped out saying he had nothing to do with the dead, so I had to call on Howick who had played Bap years before for help. He warmed to the part, but his perennial problem, remembering lines, surfaced. An unusual silence gripped the hall when Bap entered, coffin balancing on his head. Five steps across, he was at centre. He placed the coffin in its prearranged spot . . . pause . . . A voice, tremulous with rage, broke the silence: “No not there! Too damn obvious!”
I looked back and Derek came strutting forward. “That’s mundane! Where is the director?”
I raised my hand and he acknowledged me as an object, real and visible.
“Oh! You?” He said. “Find your own centre, discard the obvious, or else everybody will be going round in circles by the time this skit ends.”
Without asking, he took over. Turning to his brother: “If Pound could do it to Eliot, I can do it to you.” There was nervous laughter from both men; no one else saw the joke. He ordered the cast to begin again. Howick’s entrance was changed to up stage left, coffin on head, Derek remarked: “Nice touch.” He asked Howick to place the coffin at down stage right, at an angle where Jourmard’s feet faced the audience. I sat next to him; the stage manager was behind me with his notebook.
“Star” by Derek Walcott. From The United States of Poetry episode “A Day in the Life.” Copyright Washington Square Arts, 1995
I never heard the prompters. Howick recalled his lines and placed the coffin without having to do a retake. Derek made a few minor changes to the closing scene and clapped heartily at the end, asking the actors to take a bow. He turned to me, smiling: “Good job young man, I didn’t have much to do.”
After rehearsals we retired to the Gaiety Club, one block away, where we joined Leo Spar St. Helene, part of the famous trio of Dunstan, Spar and Derek, all disciples of that “astigmatic saint,” Harry Simmons, their one time tutor.
Bullshit rained from the pulpit until the wee hours of morning. This was how my formal education in theatre arts went, surrounded by mentors whose only wish was to see me succeed.
****MacDonald Dixon is a close friend of brother Roderick who had his first close encounter with Derek’s theatre directing Joumard for the Saint Lucia Arts Guild.
Voices from Walcott
Here, we see and hear Adrian Augier, poet and actor, reading excerpts from Walcott’s Schooner Flight and White Egrets, as well as other poems. The audience is a gathering of writers, artists and Saint Lucian dignitaries.
A night of poetry read by accomplished literates on the occasion of the 87th birthday of the Honourable Sir Derek Alton Walcott,
Saint Lucian poet and playwright and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature
The reading was hosted at the Governor General’s Residence in St. Lucia, January 25, 2017, during Nobel Laureate Week, a celebration given in Walcott’s honor each January on the anniversary of his
birth, a date shared with Sir Arthur Lewis, St. Lucia’s other Nobel Laureate of Economics, who is also honored at that time.
*****Adrian Augier is poet, actor, theatre producer, carnival designer and trained economist. A founder of the Lighthouse Theatre, and later, the Factory Creative Arts Centre, he also established the Saint Lucia Arts Festival Company in 2004 and the WordAlive Literary Festival a year later.