Kaiso No 42 - September 16, 2003

Errol Hill (1921-2003)

It is with sadness I report that yesterday, Errol Hill one of Trinidad’s great men of letters, died in Hanover, New Hampshire after a long fight with cancer.  He was one of the most important theatre personages to come out of Trinidad, an artist and an academic, a man of passionate commitment to the arts and to Trinidad.  His legacy is wide, rich and one that needs to be better known. 

He had just recently seen one his most recent work of theatre scholarship published by Cambridge University Press.  A History of African American Theatre by Errol Hill and James Hatch hill02.jpg - 8.57 K(London: Cambridge University Press, 2003) is a massive tome, over 600 pages, and has been many years in the making.  The publisher’s new release description gives a sense of the breadth of this undertaking: It will serve as a complement to the other reference work that Dr Hill was an editor from the same press, The Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre, edited by Martin Banham, Errol Hill, and George Woodyard.  His new book has a chapter on the Caribbean Connection in African American theatre. 

Dr Hill's theatre research is widely respected and the American Society for Theatre Research for several years has offered an annual Errol Hill Award for the best book on African American theatre.  Dr Hill received an honorary doctorate in 1998 from UWI and many other awards.  He has published many other scholarly studies such as Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors (University of Massachusetts Press, 1984) and a landmark book on early theatre in the Caribbean, The Jamaican Stage 1655-1900: Profile of a Colonial Theatre (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992). 

He has also edited several collections of plays including Black Heroes (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1989) which is a unique collection of historic plays about Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, and Marcus Garvey among others.  Another excellent collection of plays is still available, A Time--and a Season: 8 Caribbean Plays  (Port-of-Spain: University of West Indies Extra-Mural Studies Unit, 1976) He also edited an important collection of essays, Theater of Black Americans (Prentice Hall, 1980). 

Besides his scholarly work, Dr Hill was the renowned John D Willard Professor of Drama and Oratory at Dartmouth College until his retirement where he produced and directed many plays.  From Greek classics like Sophocles' Antigone, Euripides' Hecuba and The Bacchae to Shakespeare and Moliere to ones by modern masters like Bernard Shaw, Brecht, O'Casey and Tennessee Williams.  He also staged Caribbean experience including Derek Walcott's Ti Jean and His Brothers, Lennox Brown's Devil Mas', and his own Man Better Man.  While in England as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts he directed the first production of Derek Walcott’s play Henri Christophe a production which featured had playwright Errol John in the lead and President A R Robinson in the cast.

The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre

Errol Hill's first major scholarly book was The Trinidad Carnival.  Originally published by University of Texas Press in 1972, it was recently republished a twenty fifth anniversary edition with new material in 1997 by John La Rose's New Beacon Books in London.  While there have been several books on carnival since this still remains as the classic seminal study.  Dr Hill was one of the first to celebrate and expound on the revolutionary character of Carnival.

[C]arnival had become a symbol of freedom for the broad mass of the population and not merely a season for frivolous enjoyment.  It had a ritualistic significance, rooted in the experience of slavery and in the celebration of freedom from slavery….  The people would not be intimidated; they would observe carnival in the manner they deemed most appropriate.  A theatre that draws inspiration from a movement so deeply rooted in the culture of a people cannot but reflect the national spirit or fail to win a large measure of popular support. 

His book is subtitled  "A Mandate for National Theatre".  Besides being a history of carnival and carnival arts in Trinidad, it was and remains a call to take up arms, well no a call to take up costumes, burlesque and satire and realize the theatrical potential latent in Carnival.

            Since Hill’s call thirty years ago, the inter-twining of Carnival and theatre has continued.  There have been many explorations of Carnival elements in the dramatic productions of Errol Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, Tony Hall’s Jean and Dinah and the Gerry Connor’s controversial Carnival Messiah.

Calypso drama

One of the areas of Carnival history that Dr Hill discusses in detail in The Trinidad Carnival is calypso drama, short skits were performed in the calypso tents starting in 1933 with The Divorce Case and intermittently ever since.  Hill traces the dramatic elements in calypso songs, the development of the first calypso duets by Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun and the evolution of these tent skits.  Recently through the efforts of Rawle Gibbons and his Camboulay Productions a whole new era of calypso drama has arisen.  But these more elaborate full length productions are a far cry from the far simpler productions done in the tents. 

These simple skits had stopped after 1957 except for the revival that Sparrow brought to them in the Original Young Brigade in the Sixties.  For five years, he revived the calypso drama much to the delight of OYB patrons who enjoyed these comedic breaks.  These were simple productions, simple props, little scenary, but they did add to the excitement with costumes and bits of dramatic business that added to the fun.

Hill noted the majority of these plays were around court cases, some real and some imagined.  In 1965 the subject of the drama was the trial of Mano Benjamin, a famous murder case that captivated the country at the time and indeed ended up being the subject of calypsos by Cypher and Composer.  As Hill noted the underlying crime was the stuff of tabloids, “The court case concerned a small farmer, Mano, who took two teen-aged girls from their home in a remote country area, kept them under lock and key, and allegedly tortured them so that their sight was impaired.”

To treansform the story into a dramatic piece, an original script was submitted to the Original Young Brigade by C.  B.  Pantin and reworked into song by Lord Cristo.  When presented in the tent, Sparrow starred as the judge, Bill Trotman as Dulcie the female lead, Lord Bitterbush as Mano Benjamin, Cristo as the jury and Caruso as the policeman.  Errol Hill went to visit with Lord Cristo after the season and recorded his memory of the text .  In an appendix, Dr Hills documents the full text of the short calypso drama.  Errol Hill also created theatrical events for the first two post Independence Dimache Gras presentations in 1953 and 1964.

Regrettably, Rawle Gibbons has not been putting on productions during Carnival recently like he had in the early Nineties.  But performances at first the Yangatang and then the Maljo tent have offered another exploration of calypso theatre in the comedy skits written by Errol Fabien and Nicki Crosby as part of something new that is called a calypso tent but is really a new form.

Ping Pong

Errol Hill’s scholarly work has overshadowed his own work as a playwright.  While he wrote only a hand full of plays, two of them are very important and are central to the confluence of Carnival and theatre.  Few realize that Dr Hill wrote the first ever play about steel band.  His short play Ping Pong was written in1948.  It is dedicated to “Elle Mannette and all those early ‘pan-beaters’ who, out of adversity and in the face of opposition, created a new type of music.”

The play itself gave an intimate portrait of life in a panyard.  Judy Stone noted, “Hill drawing upon the immediacy of his experiences with the steelband, achieves a brisk Creole dialogue that is electrifyingly authentic, graphic and witty.”

In an introduction to the first published edition in 1955, Eric Williams saw the play as a vital celebration of Trinidad culture in the panyards, “The Ping Pong … is ..  a tribute to the ingenuity of our people and a symbol of the creative instincts latent in them.…These are the creators of our Caribbean music, the characters of our Caribbean drama, the voters of our Caribbean democracy.”

Judy Stone summarized the play as follows:

The tightly crafted comedy is set in a backyard bamboo ‘tent’, the home of the Canary Steelband.  An hour before an important competition, the captain’s irreplaceable pan is stolen.  The audience sees the theft, and the suspense that is skillfully developed from the outset of the play relies not on who did it, but on his motivation, on whether the pan will be rescued undamaged, whether the culprit will be discovered and the framed man cleared, whether the band will play in the competition, whether the Canaries will beat their rivals.

Judy Stone.  Studies in West Indian Theatre: Theatre
(London: MacMillan, 1994)

It was broadcast in 1950 on BBC radio across England and the Caribbean as part of the historic radio show, Caribbean Voices.  The amazing thing to remember is this was before TASPO came to England when as far as I know only Boscoe and Sheila Holder were performing with pan in England.  Yet Errol Hill was giving a rich portrait of life in a panyard at the time heard all over England.  What other picture of life in a panyard was given for the next two decades? It was performed at the Roxy Theatre in Port of Spain with an overture “Ping Pong Rondo” specially commissioned by Sgt.  Griffin on May 5, 1955.

Ping Pong was later published as part of the UWI Extramural series of one act plays, an effort spearheaded by Dr Hill.  It appears now to be out of print. 

Dr Hill wrote several more one acts that were issued by Extra Mural, Dance Bongo, Wey Wey, Strict Matrimony, Square Peg, and Oily Portrait.  These short plays continue to performed in the Caribbean.  Strictly Matrimony was directed by Ken Hippolyte at the Lighthouse Theatre in St.  Lucia a few years ago.  Judy Stone noted Ping Pong had long been a popular play to be performed by school. 

Yet I have not heard of Ping Pong being revived recently.  It seems to me with its six or seven players the perfect drama to be performed at a lunch time session in one of the panyards during Carnival season.  Or what about Shrove Tuesday March  by Roderick Walcott, another one act play set in a pan yard.  Perhaps Pan Trinbago should use these two as a spring board to commission a series of other panyard one acts that could bring visitors to a revolving series of pan yards mid-day during Carnival season.

Man Better Man

The best known of Dr Hill’s plays is his greatest achievement, Man Better Man. It is a play with stickfighting and obeah, a carnivalesque farce of community and heroism, deciect, love and loyalty with calindas, calypso and dance enriching the brew.  It was published several times.  First in Yale School of Drama Presents edited by John Gassner (New York: Dutton, 1964).  It was most recently published in Three Caribbean Plays (London: Longman, 1985). 

Putting stickfighting at the center of the drama fixed the dramatic focus on an important origin of Carnival; indeed, one that Hill wrote about at length in his book on carnival:

The stick fight was both a dance and a combat.  The fighter was first a performer conscious that his play was watched by a critical audience.  He had to demonstrate complete mastery of the art by executing intricate dance steps up to moment of an attacking or a defensive maneuver….Calinda chants, some of which memoralize great heroes of the sport, were sung by the stickmen themselves with a supporting chorus, thus earning them the title by one writer of ‘battling troubadours.”

Man Better Man has this carnival tradition at the center of the musical and uses it to focus the passions and intrigues of the play with a calypsonian present to comment on the action. 

Productions were mounted at the Yale School of Drama in 1960 and 1962.  In 1965, the Trinidad Theatre Company production was staged in August in Trinidad and then taken to England in September as part of the Commonwealth Arts Festival.  The production featured an amazing cast including Molly Ahye, Peter Pitts, Ronnie Williams, Freddie Kisson, and Errol Jones.  Beryl McBurnie did the choreography and the band featured John “Buddy” Williams on bass and John Henderson on cuatro.  An excerpt from one of the Commonwealth Arts Festival performances was even broadcast on BBC TV.

In 1969, Man Better Man came to New York City in a production by the Negro Ensemble Company.  NEC was the most important Black theatre group in America at the time and had only started two years earlier.  It has produced over 200 plays over the years and many of the greatest African American actors have participated in its productions including Louis Gossett Jr., Denzel Washington, Roscoe Lee Brown, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel Jackson and Phylicia Rashad.  A recent PBS American Masters television program focused on this exciting company and its many achievements.

In 1975 Dr Hill mounted a production at Dartmouth with Peter Minshall doing stage designs.  Indeed, Dr Hill helped arrange for Minshall to return in 1977 as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Drama.  Man Better Man continues to be produced.  Most recently, the UWI Centre for Creative and Festival Arts did a production in April of 2002.

Calypso and Dr Hill

Dr Errol HillIn calypso his major accomplishment was the editing of Raymond Quevedo's book Atilla's Kaiso: A Short History of Trinidad Calypso, which was finally published in 1983 and is still available from UWI Press.  It remains one of the essential books on calypso and would have never seen the light of day if Dr Hill had not gone through the process of gathering the disparate pieces that were available and put them all together.  His fascinating essay, “Calypso and War” was given at the 1986 UWI Calypso conference.

He was an amazing warm person and someone who I have held in the highest regard.  I've been lucky to share meals several times in Trinidad and enjoyed his company at the fabulous Carnival conference that Dr Milla Riggia held at Trinity College in Hartford a few years ago.  The last few years has served as an advisor for the forthcoming Calypso: A World Music exhibit that I am co-curating with Steve Stuemple of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.  His considered opinions at our consultation meetings the past few years are shaping that exhibit as it begins to take final form. 

Errol has been incredibly supportive since I started to research calypso and carnival and first contacted him almost a decade ago.  He shared his own passions for true true kaiso and all aspects of Carnival in Trinidad as well as his special love for the work of Lord Kitchener.  He was one of those who ran on to the Pitch at Lords in 1950 when the West Indies team beat England and then followed Lord Kitchener as he led the jubilant fans through the streets to Picadilly Square.  I loved hearing him tell stories of Kitch, of Carnivals past, of calypsos he loved or staging Dimache Gras in 1964 with his Whistling Charlie and the Monster.  I will miss him.

May his books be read, his plays performed and his spirit live on.

Feel free to contact me and tell me the calypso news.  Also I am happy to get email addresses for additional people who might be interested in these occasional newsletters.

Ray Funk - 16.9.03
POBox 72387, Fairbanks, AK 99707, rfunk@ptialaska.net

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