WE DANCED through the streets of New Orleans outside of the official Carnival period, enveloped by sounds of jazz, blues and revelry from the balconies and magical shops everywhere.
In London, I purchased a compilation of Bob Marley’s music from a stall in the centre of many others, stretching as far as the eye could see along the streets of Notting Hill.
And in Miami, a global community gathered to buy and sell books under tents in the street in front of the university.
Before the pandemic, we took the streets for granted. They were there to be tented, arranged or repurposed as we chose. After years of enforced seclusion, the streets are calling again. They are reminding us that in many ways life happens outside.
It is possible that the first form of local street theatre emerged when the former enslaved took over the streets at Carnival time, spitting out the brutality of enslavement as masquerade. Perhaps when the jamettes raised their skirts and “skinned their bottoms” at the respectable elite, it was not really about shocking their former masters but about reclaiming their bodies from them.
Similarly, with the jab molassie masquerade, centuries of trauma were channelled into the paint, ritual and public screams of defiance.
Historically, theatre of the street has been synonymous with challenging oppressive regimes or systems. By 1861, anti-British theatre in India had become such a threat to the colonial government that it instituted the Dramatic Performance Act of 1876 to suppress Indian theatre.
Theatre was a significant component of the people’s revolutions in Europe against the monarchies of Russia and France.
In the early 1960s the Free Southern Theatre was started in New Orleans at the height of the civil rights movement in the US. Its founders were senior members of the influential Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), which our Kwame Ture would eventually lead as chairman.
By the following decade, theatre practitioners drew inspiration from Paolo Friere’s Pedagogía del Oprimido, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In his groundbreaking work, Friere advocated for the inclusion of people from lower-income households as partners in their education and development.
Inspired by Friere’s insights, Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal revealed his Theatre of the Oppressed technique in 1979. Through Boal’s work he sought to free Brazilian theatre from European interpretations and make it “national, popular and political.”
Meanwhile, in 1970s Jamaica, the grassroots group Sistren spearheaded the incorporation of improvisational theatre as a powerful voice for the rights of women.
In TT, similar shifts were evident. From as early as the 1950s, the street theatre of the masquerade entered the conversation on civil rights with George Bailey’s winning portrayal Back to Africa. The Black Power movement of the 1970s would introduce a structured form of street theatre as part of NJAC’s Black Traditions in Arts, curated and scripted by Eintou Springer.
Different to the organic protests of the jamettes, this form of street theatre included features like an outdoor stage, sound and actors. Critically, performances were free and everyone could engage with the performance without being restricted by ropes or other physical barrier.
At the time, the Black Power activists were concerned about highlighting injustices such as police brutality and the depressed living conditions of the urban poor, primarily people of African heritage. These themes were echoed by playwrights like Errol John and Eric Roach and by creative forces of the time like Astor Johnson and Andre Tanker.
Today, there is a growing appreciation for the power of street theatre, for its ability to challenge and move the audience in a way that sitting in an enclosed formal theatre space cannot do. However, as discussions intensify about transforming Ariapita Avenue and perhaps other spaces across our country as centres for culture and the arts, lines are being drawn.
It is disheartening to read the typically venomous opinions about the negative aspects of Carnival and the problems the festival can cause for communities. Certainly, noise, encroachment of space, littering and other issues are real problems – I am plagued by these nuisances wherever I live in this country. So it is essential that they are addressed, in consultation with the people of the area.
Our national festival is not just a party; it is grounded in resistance, artistry and the struggle of a people for self-determination. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the 1800s. Let us appreciate the complex beauty of our TT culture and, collectively, explore the best way to take it back to the streets.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN