Friday, March 17, 2017

Nobel Tears of and for a Nobel Bard now Sower in the Skies Derek Walcott RIP

A Literary Life
I saw tears pouring down the cheeks of Derek Walcott. Twice. That is apart from the tears he evidently sheds digging into his personal and historical trauma to articulate our vision and aspirations for our society, our world.

On the first occasion, he is in immense distress and anguish. On the other occasion his are tears of immeasurable pleasure, joy and sense of accomplishment. Both times were in relation to his art. He was not acting: Private, personal emotion pouring out uncontrollably about his passion for his work, his art, the society that inspires, nurtures and receives it with disdain or with pride. Antithetical emotions conveyed in seemingly like expression, portrayed in the face of the same individual.
The two moments may well sum up the range and scope of the man, the artist, the playwright, the poet, the essayist, the dramatist, the human. They also sum up the pain and pleasure of piloting art in a society like ours.
“What does this society want, Kris, tell me”, Derek’s anguish had burst out. Tears brim in his eyes and over flow down his cheek. It is the year of our collaboration on the staging of Steel, the play he wrote and directed to celebrate the creative impulse of the region which manifests in the creation of the signatory percussion instrument birthed in the 20th century, the steelpan. It is also to celebrate the communities and people and socio-economic-political and cultural realities that spawned its birth and growth and the dreams and ambitions of those who created it. The play reflected the yearning for acceptance and appreciation for its emergence; acknowledgement of the impulses from which it springs, to provide the music it does: to seduce, charm, excite, admonish, cajole and the range of emotions and experiences music can provoke in us. 
A run and rerun of sold-out highly appreciative and applauding audiences had translated into an onslaught of deflating media reviews that Walcott. The emerging media tone was that not even the globally lauded Nobel Laureate Walcott, could capture and convey the Steelpan and steelband; that what he presented was farcical and a shadow of what the steelpan was and meant to the people who spawned it and the society that claimed it.
The weeks and months of careful auditioning the right talents for the right roles; the highly-temperamental rehearsals, flowing over with energy, buoyed by optimism, and the nightly audiences of packed Queen’s Hall and standing ovations evoked the tears that stuck in memory as what one may and should expect of our society despite the enormous passion and self-sacrifice to excel and help other's excel for one’s art. The moment would resonate over the years. 
That could have been my lament. But like Derek, I chose instead to turn the sigh into a song. Because there there is the flip side, to which I had front row seats to witness another tearful moment. This was the tears on the night of the awards ceremony held in his name and in tribute. Derek cried uncontrollably as he recognized a seven year-old who had entered our competition to attract writers.
I was asked by Albert Laveau, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s Creative Director, to manage the public and media outreach and engagement and publicity for the Workshop which Derek and Albert among others had founded in the 1950s. As the TTW was then working on the production of Steel, my role morphed into handling the full outreach and engagement portfolio for the play and related activities. The play had initially been launched some quarter century earlier in New York. This was its coming home. Derek, who took full control of the production, insisted on a meeting. Within minutes, the formalities and his acceptance of my role aside, our conversation turned to the literary arts and the common lament on the declining quality and quantity of new works.
 I am an optimist. The inhibiting factors that made quality writers and artist reticent in surfacing their work were many and I believed with encouragement and incentive some of those sitting on creditable work would surface. Perhaps an offer of prizes?
Derek immediately sparked. He pulled out his cheque book, wrote a cheque and said, “There. Let’s begin.” I was surprised at the immediate, enthusiastic and generous response. He set no conditions on how I may use his contribution. The next day I told him that it would go towards a literary prize.
Within days of public release of this, and a few strategic calls, I had a call from the General Manager of the Trinidad Hilton, Mr Ali Khan. He would match the contribution of Walcott with a similar sum, also to be used as I saw fit. In meeting again with Laveau and Walcott we decided it would be called the Trinidad Theatre Workshop's Fund for Literature and Drama. As word got around, First Citizen’s Bank also offered to match Derek's contribution which went towards the prize for Children's Fiction. The momentum built, and Business magnate Derek Chin of MovieTowne offered to pitch in a prize for film and we were able to satisfy Albert who pointed out that void in drama and script writing. By and by, after some cajoling, the University of the West Indies, later came in, which funds went towards a prize for poetry. The Hilton prize went to Children's fiction.
Within the month we had five prizes, that became known as the Trinidad Theatre Workshop Prizes for Literature, Drama and Film.
Recognising that the region had not in any significant way acknowledged Derek Walcott’s win of the Nobel Prize for Literature some thirteen years earlier, I proposed A Year of Derek Walcott. After all we were in the year of the Laureate's 75th birthday which alone merited celebration. The proposal was accepted. Derek, of course, was modestly reticent, but the enthusiasm of Laveau and myself made his doubts insignificant. The Year of Celebrations would begin with the activities around Steel and culminate in the awards ceremony of the TTW Prizes for Literature, Drama and Film. I was now conceptualising, managing and executing the outreach on Steel, the TTW Competition for Literature, Drama and Film (including long fiction, short fiction, poetry, drama and short film script) and its Prizes and Awards Ceremony and A Year of Derek Walcott when he would celebrate his 75th Birthday - burning the candle on both ends. 
The literary world was abuzz. It created ripples across the region and beyond. Calls were coming in for Derek's Steel to tour other parts of the world; potential movie offers. The short script award became the precursor to MovieTowne's short film competition and festival and our activities inspired literary and other like festivals. Derek's fellow citizens of St Lucia, his birth country, were quick to point out that Trinidad and Tobago, Walcott’s adopted country, was staging A Year of Derek Walcott - a year! What was his birthplace St Lucia doing? It inspired St Lucia’s now annual staging of a Nobel Laureate Week - a week of Derek Walcott during the week of his birthday in January. Incidentally, he was born a month before my mom, of which I often jokingly reminded him, and proffered that she was single/widowed.  
Immersed in directing Steel, Derek would enquire about how we the competition was progressing. I kept him apprised of development and the pace of submissions. He was visibly touched by the interest and responses it had garnered from writers in all spheres and especially when I told him that one of the contenders was a seven year old who was making a bid for the short story prize.
Derek, Albert and I worked together on the programme for the night of the awards ceremony that will be called Evening Epic. I came up with the name, drawing from the title of his Nobel Lecture, "The Antilles  Fragments of Epic Memory."  Following Steel, the Laureate joined in preparing the programme, recommending pieces of his works that would be dramatized and sung.
Walcott held as a principle that actors and artistes should be paid for their work in a society that expects artists to live on air while giving souls to service. To return the favour, many with whom he had worked were willing to give of their time, skills and talent to pay tribute to an artist whose work spans two centuries. They included members of the cast and crew of Steel with pieces from various of his musicals: The enormously popular satirical The Joker of Seville; among them, which music was composed by the US phenomenal. The Joker was produced from Walcott's legendary association with  the US Walt MacDermot who had revolutionised american musicals in the rocking 60s.
At Evening Epic, the night of the awards ceremony of the TTW Prizes for Literature, Drama and Film, touched by the tributes, and the event which is also one his legacies, Derek cried. They were tears of joy. The tears unbridled when we asked that he present a special prize to the seven year old who was brave enough to make his submission to the competition.
Those tears were the counterpoint to many of his own laments about the region and our societies inertia and stagnation, the corruption, the narcissistic institutions crumbling at the seems the power mongering, the fraudsters and proponents of bogus festivals, and the neglect of the arts – "Hell is a place much like Port of Spain" (The Spoiler's Return); a place which he nevertheless unhesitatingly celebrates.

...Port of Spain, the sum of history, ,,,A downtown babel of shop signs and streets, mongrelized, polyglot, a ferment without a history, like heaven. Because that is what such a city is, in the New World, a writer's heaven.
...I was entitled to the feast of Husein, to the mirrors and crepe-paper temples of the Muslim epic, to the Chinese Dragon Dance, to the rites of that Sephardic Jewish synagogue that was once on Something Street. I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragmented languages of Trinidad.... This is Port of Spain to me, a city ideal in its commercial and human proportions, where a citizen is a walker and not a pedestrian, and this is how Athens may have been before it became a cultural echo. (Derek Walcott, Nobel Lecture, 1992)

If one believes in the potential of literature and its related arts to transform us and societies, one would have to conclude that there must be insufficient reading, understanding and internalization that could impact our individual and human condition.
Our lives become immersed in trying to resist the forces that threaten to have us degenerate into a mere 'cultural echo', even in the face of superlatively incisive vision and artistry of the likes of Derek Walcott and the enormous creative capacity we embody.
In his Nobel Lecture as Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1992, Walcott would turn to the most festering chasms of Caribbean society – the divisions that keep us from celebrating and revering ourselves and the peoples who make our society, pinning it on his experience as the outside ‘other’ at the celebrations of Ramleela, brought to Trinidad and Tobago by indentured immigrant labourers from India – an experience, he chastises himself, that was as much his to own, as any other of the identities he claims:
They believed in what they were playing, in the sacredness of the text, the validity of India, while I, out of the writer's habit, searched for some sense of elegy, of loss, even of degenerative mimicry in the happy faces of the boy-warriors or the heraldic profiles of the village princes. I was polluting the afternoon with doubt and with the patronage of admiration. I misread the event through a visual echo of History - the cane fields, indenture, the evocation of vanished armies, temples, and trumpeting elephants - when all around me there was quite the opposite: elation, delight in the boys' screams, in the sweets-stalls, in more and more costumed characters appearing; a delight of conviction, not loss. The name Felicity made sense…

Wind the clock back, to 1962 and the dawning of ours as nations newly independent of colonial rule. His search inwards takes him through the colonial journey from Africa, via Eurasia to the Caribbean., and as relevant then as it is in today's world of irrationalism, violent extremism, racism and terrorism. He writes in A Far Cry from Africa:
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?

These experiences would inspire and buoy my own drive to grow, nurture, encourage and sustain literary appreciation through  the Leaves of Life initiative and the publication of LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago - which deviated in its presentation of prose fiction to also represent some of Walcott’s insights through poetry on our ‘scapes’ - and its associated activities of LiTTours – Journeys Through the Landscapes of Fiction; and LiTTributes – events that celebrate the literary artistic impulse in itsrelation to other arts in song, music, drama, costuming, cuisine, art and design, architecture, landscape, culture, festival and celebration, forging connections among us, and with other societies too - with LiTTribute to the Mainland - staged in Guyana, to LiTTribute to LondonTTown, and elsewhere.  LiTTribute to the Antilles that we staged in Antigua in fact sprang from Walcott's Nobel Lecture, The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory which had also inspired our Evening Epic, the award ceremony for literary prizes. His Nobel lecture I use to encourage comparative discourse to broaden our appreciation of ourselves, outlooks and perspectives on Caribbean society, with the Nobel Lecture of Sir Vidia Naipaul, Two Worlds our Trinidadian son who took the prized Nobel Laureate almost a decade after Walcott in 2001.
Derek would often cheekily ask after "the other guy" - ie the other Caribbean Nobel Laureate for Literature about whom he is known to have had some not too flattering pronouncements, especially as I have encouraged discussions on Literature and Caribbean Society comparing the two laureates in contexts of oral and literary development. This I had began exploring in my first book Finding A Place  the evolution of the multicultural milieu of migration and adaptation in a society and contexts of writers as Naipaul, who not unlike Walcott, has had his fair share of barbs and rejections and traumas from Caribbean society.  The 'alien' Felicity which Walcott describes in his Nobel Lecture is, I believe, not coincidentally, the home and birth landscape of VS Naipaul - elements of co-relationships that we are yet to explore with intellectual maturity and objectivity.         
To have shared in the depths of anguish and the heights of joy of one of the individuals who have labored  to help shape the global conscience of the previous and this centuries to be sensitive to small island realities were pivotal experiences in my awakening, awareness and appreciation of the place of my art, my life, my work, in a society like ours.  
Surrounded by paraphernalia from the productions, with the tears of anguish and of celebration, thank you Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930 to March 17, 2017)
Rest in Peace, Nobel Bard.
There are no more fitting words for an epitaph than what you have written yourself, with my most recent visitation from the sower:
There is a sower in the sky
That sows the seeds of stars
That sowers name is death my love
Who sows that we shall die
And if I die before you love
The harvest that I reap
Will be the memory of our love
Through everlasting sleep
In everlasting sleep, my love, in everlasting sleep
 Derek Walcott, The Joker of Seville

After several years of delay, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s long-awaited musical Steel is finally raring to go.
Written and directed by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Steel details the birth of pan.
In an interview, TTW publicist Dr Kris Rampersad said the show is scheduled to premiere on September 13 at Queen’s Hall.
She said repairs at Queen’s Hall and the venue being overbooked over the past few years were reasons for the delay.
Despite the hold-up, Rampersad sees Steel as the definitive musical on the rise of pan.
“A story on steelpan has never been done before on this scale, from the directing to the music to the stage,” she said.
Rampersad said she believed this musical was going to end the debate on pan in Trinidad by documenting everything from its birth and development to the clashes in the 1940s.
Rampersad’s confidence stems from the quality of the cast and the musical stewardship.
Besides Walcott’s directing, composer Galt MacDermot wrote the music for Steel and Gene Lawrence will serve as musical director.
MacDermot won a Tony Award for scoring Two Gentlemen of Verona.
He has written the music for other Walcott plays, such as The Charlatan, O Babylon and The Joker of Seville.
Leon Morenzie, TTW artistic director Albert Laveau, Conrad Parris, TTW veteran Nigel Scott, and singer Mavis John will all play roles in the musical.
Morenzie received a nomination by the US National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) for his role as Sam in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys.
Born in Trinidad, Morenzie now lives in California and has worked on Broadway as the lead actor in The Leaf People.
Aside from appearing on sitcoms such as Martin and the Steve Harvey Show, he also served as a dialect coach for Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo in the movie Hotel Rwanda.
Baritone Brian Green is also carded to perform.
Green, who performed in Carnival Messiah, sang in 1999 with the National Opera of Wellington, New Zealand.
Artist Jackie Hinkson is responsible for designing the set.
Set in the Laventille-Belmont area, most of the action in Steel takes place in panyards.
Rampersad said pannists from Witco Desperadoes and Pandemonium would play as members of the fictional band “the Bandidos” during the show.
She also said Steel would help serve as a marketing tool for T&T’s culture.
With a current thrust towards cultural tourism, Rampersad said the idea was for T&T to serve as the launching pad for the musical, as Steel would be also performed internationally by the local ensemble.
She also reiterated that the show’s quality could never be in question.
“Derek Walcott settles for nothing but the best and he brooks no compromise. Steel can’t be anything less than perfect.”

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