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Memoirs

Last Friday, on my way to a radio station, I stopped by St. Agnes’ Church to pay my last respects to one of the last Bahamian gentlemen to pass on. Harold Munnings Sr. was part of my life from childhood. His daughter Carol was in my grade at school and we had been friends forever. I knew and loved the house in Danottage, and our visits there were always punctuated by the appearance of Mr. Munnings, whose presence was calming and gentle and made everyone feel welcomed and loved. If Carol and Harry had a reputation for looniness (and yes, Carol and Harry, you did), we loved them anyway. They were grounded in love and respect and the kind of broughtupcy that stemmed from Harold and Gweneth.

I start with a memory of Mr. Munnings because of Harry. I can’t say how much his personal memoir, Westward, affected me. Harry is only a year or two older than I am and he published that book before he was fifty — far too early, I thought, to be thinking that you have anything to remember worth sharing with the public. Until I read the book, that is. And then I realized that Harry was right. The times in which we grew up, the times in which we were raised, are ashes and dust today, and what’s more, they are times about which the majority of Bahamians know nothing. So yes, we members of the independence generation, those of us who were children who stood up on the field on July 9 1973 to watch flags fall and rise, we may well have an obligation to start writing. Who knows? Memoir may help us heal a little.

So I’ll start, here on this blog. This is going to be the messy part of memoir. It isn’t going to have any real order beyond that which springs to my mind on (I hope) a weekly basis. Maybe one day I’ll take a leaf out of Harry’s book and, well, put it in a book, but that will take organization and thought and art. In the meantime, a jumble.

Clement-Towne

Patriotism, Independence, and Fixing What is Wrong

Last evening, rain or no rain, a ceremony was held in Pompey Square to honour 41 “culture warriors”. What can I say? My father was one of them, falling alphabetically (by first name) between Count Bernadino and Eddie Minnis, and placed there because of “Sammie Swain” and as “Muse of the National Arts Festival”.

But I was not there.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the fact that my father was being honoured, or that I didn’t agree with the list of cultural warriors, or that I didn’t think it was a good idea. The reason for my absence was a very simple one: the invitation came too late.

On Saturday last, July 5th, early in the afternoon, I got a phone call that invited me personally to the event. That there was a real determination that I be informed was evident, because the call came from the Minister of Tourism himself; and as Obie is a friend whom I knew from well before his ministerial self, I know that he was anxious that my brother and I be invited. I know, too, that there was a determination that we should be invited simply because the call came on a Saturday, which is not a normal working day. And so I cannot claim that I wasn’t informed, or that I wasn’t invited. Neither of the above is true.

But what is also true is that I was already committed elsewhere last night. It was a commitment that was set two months ago, and it was non-negotiable. Moreover, my brother was physically out of the country; he is in Canada visiting his in-laws, as he always is at this time of the year. For us to have been in attendance at that event last night we would both have had to been given notice more than a month ago, before I set my rehearsal and performance schedule for the play I’m directing and before my brother booked his flights to and from Toronto.

I told the Minister that I could not attend but that I would ask one of my cousins to represent my brother and me. And I did. But guess what? My cousins have lives, and every one of them was also otherwise committed. And so my father was honoured, and got a special lithograph of himself unveiled in the fabulous Pompey Square, and none of his family was there to take part in it.

You know what, Bahamas? This is not good enough. As one of the cousins I asked said to me, with some heat, it denotes a fundamental lack of respect for what we do, as artists, as citizens, as people. The gesture is a good one, but it is also a band-aid. It is an apology for the years of neglect, benign and otherwise, of culture and artists in The Bahamas.

It is, indeed, very little, and very late.

I could say that, for all the nice things that have been said about him since his death in August 1987 shocked a nation and a government that had wholly taken him for granted, my father gave his life—literally—for this nation, my father has just now received a tangible honour, almost 30 years after his passing. But that would not be entirely fair. Other gestures have been attempted, and some have been made; in 2000 one government wanted to name the building now known as the National Centre for the Performing Arts (the former Shirley Street Theatre) after him, and in 2004 the National Arts Festival was given his name.

could say that, if it were not for his friends and his family and the people who truly loved and respected him—like those musicians, and others, who never fail, when they see me or my brother, to tell us what he did for them, how he changed their lives or their outlooks or their view of being Bahamian or the value they place on music or The Bahamas or both—E. Clement Bethel would have been forgotten, wiped from our collective memory as though he never lived, never existed. What he tried to put in place in honour of his country, what he worked for on behalf of his country—despite his knowledge that he carried in him a medical condition that could kill him and would, if he were neglectful of his own well-being and did not change the way he lived—has been erased, destroyed, wiped away by political indifference and the gangrene that infects the civil service.

Every programme that he established has been cannibalized or gutted, or else it depends on the hard heads of individuals to survive each year. The National Dance School has lost its premises, its teaching company, and its focus on the national significance of dance in the building of our country. Theatre in the Park drowned under years of underfunding and lack of personnel to make it happen. The annual Carol Service was appropriated by the Ministry of Education. And the National Arts Festival—named after my father in an attempt to keep it alive—limps along underfunded and hobbled by the layers of bureaucracy that hinder its growth and development, by the ignorant interference of financial bureaucrats who question every expenditure without understanding the purpose or the benefits that accrue.

A picture in a square is a lovely gesture. But it does very little to change the hard reality of the almost total destruction of my father’s life’s work. The rationale for my father’s honour says it all. He was the first Bahamian to study classical piano as a profession, and he was a damn good pianist too, being the only person from this part of the world to take part in the inaugural Van Cliburn international Piano Competition; he was a composer, conductor and music teacher extraordinaire, and introduced hundreds of Bahamian children to music of all sorts, not least of all to the appreciation of their own; he was a nationalist who collected, arranged, and taught Bahamian folk songs to generations of young Bahamians for whom those songs would help define their being; he was a founder, and later the nationalizer, of the National Arts Festival; he was the founder of the National Dance School; he was an educator of some distinction, rising to be in charge of Highbury High School (later R. M. Bailey) and then moving to become the first Chief Cultural Affairs Officer and the first Director of Cultural Affairs for the Bahamas government; he represented The Bahamas abroad at major cultural events such as the Cultural Olympics in 1968 and the first, third and fourth CARIFESTAs in Guyana, Cuba and Barbados; he wrote and directed the Folklore Shows that between 1968 and 1972 helped set the groundwork for what we now consider “Bahamian” culture; he was the overall producer in 1973 of the Independence Cultural Pageant, an event that took only twenty minutes and which described, on Clifford Park, the sweep of Bahamian history that led to the night of July 9, 1973; he was the composer of the first Bahamian folk opera, Sammie Swain; he was one of the seminal shapers of the tradition of Bahamian choral music, setting a standard with the Nassau Renaissance Singers that others measured themselves by; he was, through his research and writing about it, one of the first people to portray Junkanoo a respected cultural event; and he was the first Bahamian ethnomusicologist and his Master’s thesis on Bahamian music is still the foremost study of what is truly “Bahamian” about our musical expression.

But he is being honoured for (to quote the press release) “‘Sammie Swain’ … ‘Muse of the National Arts Festival’.

I wonder; did even the people who selected him to be among the 41 “warriors” honoured know all of the above about him? And if they didn’t, what led them to choose him? Was it just that sense, so prevalent in Bahamian collective life, that he couldn’t be left out? That someone would be offended if his name were left off the list?

I hesitate as I write this, because I appreciate the gesture. I am glad that his name was on the government’s list, and I am more than honoured to have had my father’s lithograph produced by Jamaal Rolle and have it displayed in Pompey Square for the Independence period.

But at the same time, there is a hollowness about this honour that does not escape me. The list of honourees that is circulated enumerates the people who are placed in the square, and it calls them “warriors”, but it appears not to comprehend the war that they are fighting. They are fighting against obscurity, against the denigration of our selves and our culture, against mental slavery, against the erasure of what is Bahamian from our everyday worlds, but the very way in which this honoure was bestowed is part of the problem. It was rushed, under-researched, poorly communicated and ultimately uneducational. No one will know after the fact what these “warriors” fought for, what they won (and what they lost), or why people born after 2000 should even care.

In my title I refer to “fixing” what is wrong. I’ve been writing for 1500 words and I’m no nearer the fixing than I was at the beginning of this piece. Let me just say this. We cannot, we absolutely cannot, continue to treat our citizens and our independence in this fashion if we ever hope to build patriots and a sense of pride and patriotism in our growing population. Simply naming people is not enough. We have a long, long way to go, Bahamas, and the road is uphill all the way. We need to be prepared if we are going to climb it. Otherwise we will be stepping and stepping and slipping downhill for the next forty years to come.

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Notebook of a Return to our Theatre Home

I’m sitting in the dark lighting booth of the Dundas Theatre, running lights and sound for the Ringplay production of 12 Angry Men. The play has an easy first act for me: lights up at the beginning, fast fade and music at the end. All the focus is on the stage.

It’s coming up on thirty years since I first started my apprenticeship in theatre on the Dundas stage. I returned home from university in 1986 with an intention of writing plays. It had something to do with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but that’s another story; but somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware that if I wanted to write plays I should have some experience in being in them. So in January 1987 I made my debut as part of the Dundas Repertory Season. And so began what would become an unofficial career.

In the beginning, all was well. I started on stage, although my real interest was behind the scenes. I had spent two years at university learning how to stage manage productions, serving as regisseuse for the St. Michael’s French theatre (and, yes, doing it all in French. Um.), and I had also spent two years doing creative writing (which was a mere seminar as part of my Literature degree, as Creative Writing was not, in those days at the self-important University of Toronto, a valid degree) and coming to the conclusion that if I wrote prose I would probably never be read in my own country. I was working on adapting one of the stories I produced for my creative writing seminar into a play, and I wanted to know first-hand what I ought to think about. And so I found myself one summer at a workshop being given at the Dundas by Philip Burrows.

The workshop changed my life, though I didn’t know it then. It threw me so far out of my comfort zone it took me a good decade or so to find my way back. It also brought into my life the people I consider my closest circle of friends outside of family–and, thanks to subsequent events, it made some of those people my actual family too. Jane Poveromo, Sammie Bethell, Marcel Sherman, Cookie Allens, David Burrows, Gavin Collins, Alayne Patur and, of course Philip Burrows–these were the people I met for the first time in that workshop. We did exercises and we did monologues, and then we were presented with monologues and scenes that were specially written for the workshop, pieces written by Winston Saunders at Philip’s request. Those monologues would eventually become I, Nehemiah, Remember When…, but I didn’t get to do any, because I took up an adjunct position at COB, teaching West Indian Literature (and that particular class was another story) and had to drop out; the class clashed with Philip’s workshop.

But the workshop led to a call from Philip, just before Christmas. “I need a stage manager,” he told me. “I’m holding a reading for a play and I want you to come out.” So I turned out for the reading, which was held in the half-dark on the Dundas stage. The play was a peculiar piece. It was called The Rimers of Eldritch and it was by an American playwright I had never heard of, but whom I would later count among my favourite writers: Lanford Wilson. It was about small town midwestern America, a place which seemed ordinary but which was sinister, and was about a rape and a murder and the injustice that goes with prejudice. And it was not linear, and I loved it. I loved the reading and I wanted to be the stage manager.

And at the end of the reading, Philip said to me:

“I guess you know you’ve got the part.”

I spent the next six weeks in shock. But the rehearsal process introduced me to more people, luminaries and names of the local theatre. There were David and Gavin and Alayne and Cookie and Marcel and Sammie and Jane and me, all the people from the workshop. But there were other people in it too, people I had seen on stage or had heard of but who hadn’t been in the workshop: Angela Scott and Jeanne Thompson and Heather Thompson and Bonny Byfield and Rudy Levarity and Stephen Burrows and Liz Gottlieb and not least of all Anthony Delaney. And we worked together to create a strange and haunting and memorable ensemble piece that marked my first serious appearance (with actual lines) on the Dundas stage.

But this is a digression. I was talking about our return to the Dundas, not my beginning there. I’m sitting in the lighting booth watching 12 Angry Men. For reasons that are too long and complex to go into right now, the people I met in 1987 left the Dundas (or, more accurately, were no longer needed by the Dundas). We moved on, formed our own independent company, went on to produce theatre in other forms and other places, establishing among other things Shakespeare in Paradise. We were away for some 16 years. And then, this past March, we took over the management of the theatre. I was going to say “again” but that wouldn’t strictly be accurate; we managed the Season before, which occupied the Dundas for between five and nine months of the year, but we never managed the theatre itself. Now, though, we are the managers of the theatre as a whole. And it is like—it is in fact—a return home.

Watch that space.

Nicolette Bethel's Blog