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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, May 21, 2024


The in-house holiday production at the Reichhold Center for the Arts this weekend is not "Christmas, Caribbean Style," the musical that has been performed for the last two years, but it is assuredly a Caribbean-style Christmas show.
It's one, in fact, that has been a seasonal favorite for years throughout the Caribbean, especially in Dominica, where native son Alwin Bully wrote and first produced it 24 years ago.
Called "Folk Nativity," it's a play within a play in a folk village setting. An eccentric recluse is accused of stealing a stem of bananas. The villagers set up their own court, in which the accused invokes the story of the first Christmas, about love, peace and brotherhood, in mounting his defense. His message, playwright Alwin Bully says, is, "Don't judge people by their looks; look into their hearts." (The ending reveals the true culprit, a seemingly solid citizen.)
The cast usually ranges from 15 to 20, Bully says, with the villagers becoming all of the nativity characters – Mary, her parents and her cousin Elizabeth, Joseph, King Herod, the angels, shepherds, wise men and more.
"There are 18 songs, with some reprises, and straight dance," he says, "It's a very flexible piece. You can make it as elaborate as you want – a manger fantasy scene with angels in bandannas, carrying standards, wearing glitter and carnival cosumes. Pageantry and procession to me are intergral parts of Caribbean culture. But you also can do it in everyday clothing with an accessory shawl thrown on and so forth."
The Reichhold production, under the direction of theater director David Edgecombe, has a cast of 32, about a third of them University of the Virgin Islands and high school students. Ihsan M. Sewer plays Emmanuel David, the protagonist and narrator. Josephine Thomas-Lewis, musical director for "Christmas, Caribbean Style," has that assignment again, with Malayisha Rabsatt and Princess Penn in charge of choreography (with four V.I. Institute of the Performing Arts students as featured dancers) and Rose Maduro handling costumes.
"The setting and lighting are relatively simple – just enough to suggest time and place," assistant technical director Denise Humphrey says. The effect, she adds, is "not to distract the audience's attention from the story, yet colorful enough to punctuate the culture and life of the people of the Caribbean."
Edgecombe says the decision to do "a new Christmas musical" this time was made a year ago. "'Christmas, Caribbean Style' had been done for two years," he explains, "and we didn't want to risk having our audience get tired of it." Also, he says, those involved in the production "welcomed the challenge of a new work." Three plays were considered, he says, with "Folk Nativity" the ultimate choice.
Alwin Bully: Caribbean Renaissance man
Bully, who lives in Kingston, Jamaica, where he serves as regional cultural advisor to UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was considered a "Renaissance man" while still a student of theater at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus in Barbados in the 1970s. Actor, dancer, director, playwright, writer of radio serials, composer, lyricist, carnival costumer, set and lighting designer, he went on to create Dominica's Cultural Department within its Ministry of Community Development and design his nation's flag.
"David and I go 'way back," Bully says of Edgecombe. "We knew each other as teenagers. It seems that we've known each other all our lives – corresponding, visiting each other, each other's families. It's a long association that has been very rewarding."
They first met in the '60s at a UWI theater workshop "when we were both schoolboys, he in Dominica and I in Montserrat," Edgecombe recalls. "We are among the few participants from that workshop who are still active in theater, and have remained friends throughout the years."
Both were involved in Theater Information Exchange, a pan-Caribbean movement of the '70s and early '80s. They were two of the four writers whose works were examined at the Caribbean Playwrights Conference held on St. Thomas in 1981. (The others were Trinidad's Ronald Amoroso and St. Thomas's Rudolph Wallace, author of "The Philosopher Limer.") Bully played a lead role in the first public presentation of Edgecombe's play "Kirnon's Kingdom." In 1999, both were on a Caribbean theater panel at a writers' conference held on St. Croix to mark the 10th anniversary of the literary anthology "The Caribbean Writer."
A couple of years ago, one of the Caribbean Repertory Theater productions at the Reichhold was Bully's melodrama "Nite Box."
Bully says he got a telephone call from Edgecombe "about three months ago asking if the script of 'Folk Nativity' was available." Edgecombe, he notes, "has never seen the play," although it was performed once before at the Reichhold — in 1979 as part of a tour to raise funds for assistance to Dominica in the aftermath of Hurricane David.
Bully didn't come to St. Thomas for the current production. "I will be staying home for Christmas," he says, adding that in this case "home" is Jamaica, although home will always also be Dominica. He supplied the Reichhold staff a tape of the music, as well as a recording of a mounting of the play in Dominica last year.
Keeping Christmas 'in the music all around us'
The music that Bully and co-composer Einstar LeBlanc created for "Folk Nativity" spans the contemporary Caribbean experience, incorporating calypso/kaiso, reggae, the French West Indian cadance/zouk, Haiti's compas, the Hispanic merengue, other Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and spouge, a popular rhythm in Barbados in the 1970s.
"It's the music that is all around us," according to Bully, who also wrote the lyrics. "The whole idea is that, while we enjoy the standard European-American carols that we've all grown up with, they evoke memories and so forth, we felt that we weren't as a Caribbean people celebrating Caribbean Christmas the way Caribbean people celebrate generally: How we enjoy our carnival, how we behave at wakes. If we are celebrating the birth of Christ, let us celebrate it in the way that we really enjoy."
Upon return to Dominica after college, Bully became the leader of the People's Action Theatre, a movement aimed at fostering national pride and fomenting social change. Most of his plays have been social and political commentaries, often involving audience participation and integrating song, dance, drumming and even slide projections, sound effects and television imagery.
"Folk Nativity," Bully's first full-scale musical, shocked traditionalists, he says, but "that maybe increased the popularity of the play." For example, a song by shepherds in the field "is about waiting for a savior to liberate them from oppression within society," with Rastafarian overtones. He didn't anticipate the broad appeal the work would come to have. "You write a play thinking you're writing for your little home audience," he reflects, "and it gets outside Dominica, and you wake up one morning and it's all over the Caribbean."
Bully intends to "get back into theater in a serious way in a few years' time," returning to Dominica to do so. Like Edgecombe, he wants to work with others in the region in developing "a lot greater use of television, film and the Internet" to disseminate theater. "And also radio – community radio stations are very popular in the Caribbean."
It's not as if his UNESCO work has kept him away from t
he stage, however. For 10 years, until last year, he and his wife ran The Company Limited, a monthly forum in Kingston for play reading, "to encourage new, young playwrights to expose their work, have it critiqued and go back to the drawing board and write a better play." He is artistic director of Father Holung and Friends, an organization that runs four hospices and has presented musicals in Jamaica's National Arena, which seats 8,000 people, and toured to Los Angeles and Miami. He works with Kingston's Jamaica School of Drama, which offers courses acredited by UWI.
"I've been able to keep in touch with the hands-on people, although my own art has suffered in that I've not been able to write or direct as much as I would like," he says.
"Folk Nativity" will be presented on Saturday, Dec. 23, and Christmas night, Monday, Dec. 25. Curtain time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in the covered section, $12 and $8 in the open air. They're available on St. Thomas at the Reichhold box office, Parrot Fish Music, Modern Music/Havensight and Krystal & Gifts Galore; and on St. John at Connections. For charge card purchases and further information, call 693-1559.

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