“A friend of mine went to England to study acting. Now, his mother was dead set against acting. She said, ‘Boy you can’t make no money acting. What you going to England to do?’ He didn’t take her on; he went to London. ’Bout six weeks later he write back home asking for 200 pounds. She write back telling him, ‘Act as if you have 200 pounds.’”
– Paul Keens-Douglas, Tim Tim monologue
THE ABILITY of Caribbean people to laugh in the face of adversity is legendary. The fires of genocide, enslavement, indenture, occupation and colonialism have forged people with the ability to turn painful history into resilience and even hope. Humour has often been our protective shell. As more of our creative icons leave us, we call their names and remember them in our prayers and rituals.
This week was another challenging one in the year 2020. It began with a focus on reparations for enslavement, continuing with a day in commemoration of indigenous peoples. In this country, both events were muted, overwhelmed perhaps by a global pandemic and our intensifying battle for economic survival. Perhaps.
As I continue to work through the passing of Sprangalang, I wondered if there would ever be a time when we can laugh at 2020. Indeed, how much time should pass before we can laugh at our shared histories of pain?
In the coming days, our household will most likely again shed tears in memory of Maurice Bishop, the prime minister of Grenada who was assassinated on October 20, 1983. I remember thinking that if I ever had a chance to be a leader, I would want to be like him. Kind, self-assured, at peace with his mission and vision.
In one of his brilliant Tim Tim monologues, Paul Keens-Douglas created an amusing scenario about the American presence in Grenada after the betrayal of Uncle Maurice. “During the invasion here, I understand three fellas climb up some trees to hide. When the Americans come under the first tree, they shout, ‘Who’s up there!’ The first fella bawl coo coo. The soldier said, ‘Oh that’s only a little bird.’ The second tree. Hear the fella meow. The soldier said, ‘Oh that’s only a cat.’ When they called out ‘Who’s up there!’ under the third tree, hear the fella moo.”
By the time Keens-Douglas gave that joke, the audience was already under his spell. In these extremely politically correct times, would such humour be appreciated? Is it needed?
“Before ah start ah want to congratulate all the people who does practise Obeah.” Sprangalang made the point that Caribbean people showed the world what we wanted, and kept parts to ourselves, like the belief in and practice of non-Christian spirituality.
He also addressed the casual way we apparently view dishonest behaviour. “There’s no such thing as robbery in Trinidad. What happen is, the young people don’t do geography in school and sometimes when they leave home, they forget whey they living. And when they go home, they seeing stereo in they house and they say, ‘But what that doing here’ and they take it up to carry it back by whoever own it. You understand? We don’t tief.”
On stage in New York, Errol Fabien echoed this casualness, even as he addressed teenage angst, drug addiction, poverty and inequality. In repeating the refrain, “I want to be rich,” he cleverly used humour to describe how wealth earns immediate respect, while people without means are left behind. “My family was very poor. For my fifth birthday I got a photograph of a birthday cake. And I spent all day trying to blow out the candles. If I wasn’t a boy when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have had nothing to play with.”
Frequently, the core of humour is pain. Early masquerades epitomised the ability to torture elites who benefitted from the wealth of society but gave little in return. From baby doll to piss-en-lit and dame Lorraine – Carnival embodied the rebellious nature of laughter.
Calypsonians also push comedic boundaries. As far back as 1958, Mighty Spoiler commented on the unethical and incompetent justice system with Magistrate Try Himself. “Heself tell heself, you are charged for speeding/Heself start to shout, the policeman lying!/Heself tell heself, Doh shout! He said, No sport!/And he charge himself for contempt of court.”
As I work through the passing of icons, their words resonate, their energies swirl. Pour libation in their memory. Give thanks for those who can still make us laugh.
NOTE: In my column "Riddim and power of our spoken word," I referenced Prof Funso Aiyejina as the co-founder of the Bocas Lit Fest. Aiyejina is actually a founding director of the festival and deputy festival director.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN