Tracing identity, social movements, and nation building through Performance Arts
The Barbados Ephemera Collection contains a large number of theatrical, music, and dance performance brochures and booklets. They provide an overview of the vibrant performance arts scene in Barbados from the 1950s onwards and a way to explore the role of performing arts in the development of a national identity.
Viewed alongside one another, these brochures and playbills enable thematic comparison that reflects the changing landscape of cultural production on the island as well as the shift in audiences that pushed performances from upper class to more universal sites of cultural exchange. While earlier theatrical productions in the 1950s catered to the upper class, plays in the 1970s and 1980s reflect increasing preoccupation with matters of social justice, race, women’s rights, the island’s painful transition from slavery to independence, and the frustrations of the West Indian diasporaabroad.
Here are some examples showcasing this transition in topics:
- Revuedeville 1953, a musical extravaganza presented at the Empire Theatre by students of Ms. A. L Stuart’s School, reflects the tastes of its mostly white, upper class audience.
- The play "Dream on Monkey Mountain" written by famed St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott and presented by UWI students in the late 1970s is a dreamful interpretation and piercing analysis of the origins of Caribbean people and takes place in the Prison, the Forest, and Africa.
- Women’s issues take center stage in the play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide - When the Rainbow Was Enuf" written by American playwright Ntozake Shange and presented by Stage One Theatre Productions, a non-profit organization that promotes research into “the folklore and folk-ways of the island.” In the play, seven women see themselves “as they know they are” and not through the lens of “typical West Indian male chauvinism.”
- The musical play "Lick an' Lock-up Done Wid," written by writer/producer Sam Taitt and presented on the occasion of Barbados’ tenth Independence anniversary (1976), follows Barbados’ 300-year history and cultural development and highlights “the struggle for independence between our arrival here from Africa, the actual attainment of Independence in November 1966, and now.” The introductory remarks emphasize the need to face painful memories by understanding “the blood (and licks) and bondage (and lock up) that is our past.”
- The play “Sweet Talk” focuses on the ‘Lonely Londoners’, the black West indian immigrants to Londonm and their anxieties and frustrations.
Progressively, we also see plays that celebrate the creole Bajan language that Kamau Brathwaite has called the “nation language.” Based on the poetic works of Bruce St. John, the theatrical production "Talk Yuh Talk" incorporates the language of the people to convey the wit and humor of the folk wisdom, but also its sadness and irony. Additionally, instead of plays centering on canonical authors, we see plays, such as “Teacher Teach ‘er” promoting local playwrights and offering poignant critiques of the country’s socioeconomic issues. Further, instead of plays as faithful productions of the original, we have adaptations, such as this “Caribbean version” of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” that appeal to local audiences. Other plays, such as "TI-Jean and His Brothers," emphasize themes and approaches that might be seen as “provincial, primitive, childish,” but that in fact instill the “catharsis of the folk humor” and offer “a radical innocence.”
This exuberant, yet powerful subset of material in the Barbados Ephemera Collection can contribute to research in cultural studies, Caribbean studies, and the history of Barbados, particularly around themes such as identity, social movements, civil and women’s rights, politics, colonialism and its legacies, etc. This sub-collection will also greatly benefit research and teaching of the performing arts in Barbados and in the Caribbean in the second part of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. Many of the booklets in the collection contain the plot of the plays, as well as the lyrics of songs, and can be used to stage adaptations of original performances, particularly those that coincide with landmark dates. Furthermore, brochures and booklets contain information, bios, and often images of the performers, and this might be of great interest for genealogical research.