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Monday 27 May 2019
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Sing De Chorus at the Normandie

Corporal Santapee (Sean Singh) leads the chorus in celebration of the censorship of calypso.
Corporal Santapee (Sean Singh) leads the chorus in celebration of the censorship of calypso.

RAY FUNK

AS part of the Carnival Under the Trees series at the Hotel Normandie, Rawle Gibbons’ great musical Sing De Chorus will return for two performances on February 25 and 26 at 7 pm and it is not to be missed.

For anyone who loves classic kaiso, this is the theatre experience of the Carnival season and features over three dozen of the best calypsoes of the era in the context of the tent and the politics of the time, an important part of calypso history and indeed in the history of the nation. From barrack yard to calypso tent, Sing De Chorus crystallised the issues facing the tents in the 30s, the Great Depression, colonialism and class, town and rural life, calypso censorship – the tensions of the times.

Sing De Chorus features some of the country’s best singers of classic calypso, from extempo master Black Sage (Phillip Murray), who is also singing in Kaiso House this year; David Bereaux, who with his friends has been one of the most popular revivalists of great calypso classics; to young singers like two-time calypso monarch Chuck Gordon; and Krisson Joseph, son of the great calypsonian Penguin, who has a classically-trained voice and has been very involved in a wide range of productions at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) and elsewhere from opera to calypso.

Very strong in this production is the joyous singing, dancing and movement provided by the chorus and indeed the musical is aptly titled, as the audience can’t help but sing along.

First produced in January 1991, Sing De Chorus caused a sensation during that year’s Carnival season performed at Queen’s Hall, rearranged with arena seating to give the feel of a tent. Gibbons consciously drafted the show to give it that participatory quality, seeking to evoke an historic time and create space to let the audience actively take part.

Corporal Santapee (Sean Singh) meets his match in Madame Khan (Alana Ash), as Winston (Roderick “Chuck” Gordon) and Old Lady (Cherysh La Touche) look on.

A very positive review by playwright Lennox Brown and word of mouth caused audiences to fill the seats and its popularity led Gibbons to turn what was just to be one play into a trilogy, with Ah Wanna Fall, which focused on Spoiler, and Ten to One, on Sparrow, produced in the next two years.

Sing De Chorus grew out of the extensive interviews Gibbons did at the time with calypso legend Growling Tiger, which led him to write biography. Indeed, it is Tiger’s life in the tents in the 1930s that informed the events of Sing De Chorus. When he finished writing it, Gibbons read it first to his wife and then to Tiger to seek approval.

Sing De Chorus was presented the next year at Carifesta. Other productions have been done over the intervening years.

Then, last year for Calypso History Month, Canboulay Productions with the Lloyd Best Institute mounted a well received revival that is returning for these two Carnival season shows Under the Trees. It features many people connected to the original show, including the original director, Louis McWilliams.

McWilliams was a student of Gibbons at the time and this was one of the first plays he directed. Since then he has gone on to direct dozens and dozens of plays and musicals and has taught theatre at UWI for many years.

Set and costume designer Judith Laird has returned in her role and Gibbons was effusive in his praise of her work both times.

Sadly, two of the stalwarts of the original production have passed on: the legendary actor Errol Jones and the master midnight robber Brian Honore.

Both Black Sage and Bereaux acted and sang in the original production and Sing de Chorus has shaped both their careers. Black Sage remembered the help McWilliams gave both him and Bereaux not to sing the calypsoes but to perform them so as to maximise the storytelling of the song.

In the original production, Black Sage was the young calypsonian Saga, who had to tell jokes at one point in the show each night. This led to his becoming a popular MC, as he was just recently for Holy Name Convent’s Vintage Fuh So! show at Queen’s Hall, and to write calypsoes and to become one of the best at extempo.

Bereaux went on to be featured in all three shows of the trilogy and in a sense his David Bereaux and Friend’s shows have taken the classic calypsoes of the trilogy and others into a cabaret act, featuring McWilliams on drums and fine musicians like guitarist Marva Newton, who is the music director for the Sing de Chorus revival.

A school performance on February 20 featured Valentino as Lord Executor, and a young volunteer from the audience took the chance to sing extempo and did very well. The hundreds of students had a great time. One school group was most supportive of the character of Uriah “Buzz” Butler.

Plans are in the work to revive the rest of the trilogy. But for now, there's this rare chance to see, hear and joyfully join in, sing all de chorus to true-true kaiso.

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