Walcott's Trinidad Troupe Elevates West Indian Arts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN scene after scene, Don Juan swaggers across the stage, seducing women at every turn. But in ``The Joker of Seville,'' the legendary Spanish libertine is Caribbean, and the setting is the colorful West Indies. In this adaptation of Tirso de Molina's 17th-century play, calypso, carnival, and folk rituals meld with Trinidadian humor.

``The Joker of Seville'' is a play by Derek Walcott, a Boston University English professor and native St. Lucian, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. It was performed by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, a group Mr. Walcott started in 1959 that has gained critical acclaim throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere. In Boston through July 31 for its only United States engagement this year, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop is presenting two of his plays: ``Joker'' and ``Dream on Monkey Mountain.''

The Trinidad Theatre Workshop began as an experiment in theater development, where actors from fledgling groups in Trinidad met to exchange ideas and training. Eventually, a number of these actors formed their own group under Walcott's inspiration and vision; by 1966, it had developed into a repertory company.

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Since its beginning, however, the troupe has had to jump over hurdle after hurdle to survive. ``We had a lot of difficulty for many years,'' explains senior member Albert Laveau, who with three other members gathered recently at a Boston University theater to talk about what defines Caribbean theater and the group's struggle for better recognition.

One hurdle has been attracting audiences. In Trinidad, there is little awareness or appreciation of art, culture, and literature. This is partly because people had to pay for secondary education until the late 1950s, so many didn't go past primary schooling. Thus, says Laveau, ``The perception of the arts as a career to be seriously pursued was never given any serious thought, except in pockets here and there.'' Though their audiences have grown over the years, they're still mostly made up of intellectuals.

In Port of Spain, Trinidad's largest city, another problem is a lack of theaters, says troupe veteran Stanley Marshall. For years the workshop rehearsed in living rooms and presented its plays in high schools and other spaces. In 1989, on its 30th anniversary, the government allowed the group to use an old derelict building as its headquarters for five years.

``The day I walked in there my heart sank,'' Mr. Laveau remembers. ``The roof was leaking; there were mountains of muck from pigeons. It smelled, and we had to go to court to get the vagrants out.'' Laveau and others began cleaning and making modest repairs. They call it home, even though a new government has announced other plans for the building.

The Trinidad Theatre Workshop now has about 30 paid actors who perform mostly Walcott's work, though they have also done Shakespeare, Edward Albee, and other playwrights.

Themes in Walcott's plays range from finding one's identity to celebrating the Caribbean heritage.

``They're so rich in the culture, in the people,'' says Glenda Thomas, one of the group's newer faces.

``He's elevated the language'' of the Caribbean, adds Wendell Manwarren, who plays Don Juan in ``The Joker of Seville.''

The Caribbean, says Laveau, is a treasure-trove of people who have artistic talent. ``It's a very musical society,'' he says. ``You hear people whistling, singing, dancing.... The talent is there everywhere.''

The workshop is now trying to cultivate a nurturing environment for artists. With Walcott's financial and moral support, the group has recently started a school that offers dance and theater training, children's workshops, and an education project where actors perform in island schools.

Training for the theater in the West Indies is different than in the US, the actors say, mainly because few Caribbean institutions offer structured acting classes.

``Largely, actors learn by doing,'' Laveau says. The workshop, however, now teaches comprehensive classes.

``I've seen some of the methods in American theater,'' he continues. ``They tend to take the actor and pick him apart.... They break you right down, then they can't put you back together. Actors have very little confidence.

``We respect the actor. By the time our actors get to the stage they still possess all that joy and elan and effervescence they came in with.''

Those qualities characterize Caribbean theater, he says.

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