As DOMFESTA 2013 arts activities concluded on the Nature Island, I attended its final theatrical production, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It consisted of the late Martinican playwright Aimé Césaire‘s ‘A Tempest‘ (1969), which was held at the Alliance Française de la Dominique from June 14 -16. Renowned Caribbean cultural icon and son-of-the-soil Dr. Alwin Bully directed this ambitious representation with a seasoned cast of actors from locally based theatre troupe La Cour Des Arts de la Dominique. This play’s familiar title, characters’ names and plot-line do intentionally resemble Shakespeare’s well-known work called ‘The Tempest, with some unique twists.
As I had not previously studied or taught this Shakespearian play, I was glad that I had a chance to read the synopsis before going to the production. I also looked up Césaire’s adaptation to get a feel for his dramatic style and what could possibly happen on the stage. In March, I did have the privilege of seeing famous French actor Jacques Martial portray the sentiments of Césaire’s poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939) at the Arawak house of Culture in Roseau. Also, Gildas Lefèvre, my French conversation instructor at Alliance Franςaise gave me a bit of background about Césaire’s exceptional life (1913-2008) and recurrent themes in his artistic and political endeavors.
Césaire was a contemporary poet, playwright and a political and social activist. He cleverly adapted Shakespeare’s timeless dramatic work so that it incorporated themes such as colonialism, slavery, loss of identity and racism. According to the performance’s playbill, “He was the first activist to claim the rights of Black People in the French colonies, calling on them to recognize and be proud of their history, culture and values.” He even created a concept called “Negritude“, which refers to taking pride in one’s African origins and rejecting assimilation into European or colonial culture.
Even before the play formally began, the actors mulled about on or near the simple stage, chatted among themselves and even talked to
members of the audience. At first, I was surprised by this activity, but then I realised that it enhanced the intimacy of this intense presentation. The almost “theatre-in-the-round’ arrangement of the seats on either side and in front of the stage also enabled the onlookers to feel as if they were a part of the action. I could sense the energy emanating from all the
characters in the Prologue, when they were ‘given their masks’ (parts) by Ashworth Simon, who acted as the Master of Ceremonies.
From the first scene, where a fierce storm shipwrecks a group of people on an island, the audience was spellbound. The little boy sitting behind me was so drawn in that he grabbed the back of my chair (and sometimes me!) in suspense. From that point, the lines between the characters with the colonial ‘attitude’ and the resistant slaves were well articulated through powerful dialogue and precise movements from on the stage, in front or near it and occasionally in the aisles directly beside members of the audience!
The two protagonists were absolutely outstanding in the portrayal of their roles: Prospero, the typical colonial stereotype played by J. Grimner and Caliban, the angry and rebellious slave played by Emanuel Haxey Salamat were completely believable in words and actions. They certainly created considerable dramatic tension as they railed at each other with their divergent opinions on slavery and human rights. At the same time, Grimner’s part permitted comic relief through his deployment of ‘magic’ and acerbic wit. With superb diction and powerful voices, these two well-known Dominican performers
presented the issues that concerned playwright Césaire through the point-of-view of Caliban.
Additionally, I understand that Director Bully also ensured that the actors had a firm grasp of the above-mentioned complex themes that arise in A Tempest. Throughout the play, this sombre subject was often seasoned with humor. While the title alone was suggestive of the mood that permeated the play, there were a number of comic scenes that kept the audience laughing while “reading between the lines’.
It was obvious that many hours of rehearsal and preparation time were devoted to bringing this play to life. All 21 actors appeared to be DLP (dead-letter-perfect) in the execution of their lines. They seemed to assume their roles very naturally, which I know only comes with extensive preparation and practise. I also appreciated the extra artistic touches: dramatic and colourful stage make-up; graceful dances and other smoothly choreographed movements; wonderful musical accompaniment from guitarist Tyson Johnson and African drummer Ras Algie; lighting which accentuated the action on stage; and songs that reinforced the themes with repeated melodies.
When the show ended about three hours after it began, it was obvious that the audience was well entertained and instructed by this high-calibre production. Congratulations to Director Alwin Bully, as well as the entire cast and crew of A Tempest for a superb performance of this challenging play. Aimé Césaire (RIP) would be proud.