Note: Because of the weather, the performance dates have been changed to Nov. 28-Dec. 1.
Nov. 13, 2003 – In tribute to the man often called "the father of Caribbean theater," the University of the Virgin Islands Speech Communication and Theatre Area is presenting a Caribbean classic next weekend — the calypso musical "Man Better Man."
The play was written by Errol Gaston Hill, whose death in September at the age of 82 ended a distinguished and influential career as an actor, author, playwright, director, producer, professor, historian and ardent advocate of Caribbean and African-American theater.
"Man Better Man," premiered in 1960, is set in a Trinidadian country village in that era. It melds Hill's original compositions and calypso rhymes into a story about a young man named Briscoe who challenges the local stick-fighting champion, Tiny Satan, in order to win the affections of his lady love, Petite Belle Lilly.
The Little Theatre production draws on a wealth of local talent. It features calypsonian "Ashanti" (Ashley George) in the role of Hannibal, the village minstrel who weaves the story lines together through music. The musical ensemble is led by UVI music faculty member Austin Venzen and also includes faculty member Hollis Liverpool, also known as the acclaimed calypsonian "Chalkdust," on the cuatro, and Makeem Rhymer and Anderson Christian on drums.
Maireni De Jesus plays Briscoe and Akin Chinnery is Tiny Satan. Seymour Davis has the role of Diable Papa, the village obeah man. Chasda Clendinen is Petite Belle Lilly, Janette Nisbett is Briscoe's sister Inez. Dwight Browne, Tavis DeWindt, Fred Hintz and Sheldon Turnbull appear as villagers.
Behind the scenes, UVI Professor Rosary Harper is directing the production. Her speech and theater faculty colleague and longtime collaborator, Dennis Parker, is handling the technical direction. Venzen is the musical director, Doug Salisbury of the Reichhold Center staff is the lighting designer, and Janet Mescus, who joined the theater faculty this semester, is the assistant director and choreographer. Khalilah Gordon and Shanese Armstrong Mark are the stage managers.
Overall, Harper says, it's "a dynamic cast and group of musicians to present this endearing play in tribute to the life and work of Dr. Hill."
The man behind the play
Upon awarding Errol Hill the Kent State University 1996 Robert Lewis Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Theater Research, Don Wilmeth, a professor at Brown University, credited him with having "done more to further the serious study of African American theater and drama, as well as the theater of the Caribbean, than any [other] scholar in the world."
Born in Trinidad, Hill first considered singing as a career, but he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England, where he found success as an announcer for the BBC but became captivated by the theater. After graduating in 1951, he worked in Jamaica with a group called The Caribbean Thespians which performed one-act plays in Kingston's Tropical Cinema before the movies were shown. "The audiences were enthralled," he told an interviewer a couple of years ago. "They couldn't stop applauding."
Hill pursued further study in the States — graduating summa cum laude from Yale University in 1962, then earning a master's in play writing and a doctorate in theater history at Yale's School of Drama. He taught at the University of the West Indies, the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and City University of New York, before settling in at Dartmouth College, where he was a professor of drama and oratory from 1968 until his retirement in 1989. Among his students were Meryl Streep and Barry Grove, executive producer of the Manhattan Theater Club.
He produced and directed more than 120 plays and pageants in the Caribbean, England, Nigeria and the United States, from Shakespeare and Moliere to Derek Walcott's "Ti Jean and His Brothers" and the best known of his own 11 plays, "Man Better Man" and "Strictly Matrimony."
Hill has been credited with sparking the modern era in theatre in the Caribbean. In 1946 he founded a West Indian acting company, the Whitehall Players, with the international dramatic actor Errol John. An interview of Hill published in "The Caribbean Writer" in 2001 noted: "When the urgency for plays with West Indian themes and language became apparent, Hill not only wrote his own, but also advanced Caribbean drama with notable innovations.
"He utilized the vernacular, a radical and controversial departure for the time, and incorporated aspects of Trinidadian and Caribbean culture. 'Ping Pong' (1958) featured steelband players, and 'Wey Wey' (1958) focused on the Trinidadian Chinese numbers game. 'Dance Bongo' (1965), written in free verse, included the ritual dance for the dead. His most famous play, 'Man Better Man' (1964), which represented Trinidad and Tobago at the 1965 Commonwealth Festival in Britain, used rhymed calypso verse with traditional chants and original music."
"At different stages of my life, certain things were more important to me," Hill said in the interview. "Acting and direction — I loved that, but nobody was doing the history right; nobody was interested in what went before. So I started. It had to be done."
He told another reporter that same year: "If you're looking for a Caribbean theater, you don't have to look farther than carnival." His doctoral dissertation, published in 1972, was a passionate advocacy of that very concept: "The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate For A National Theatre."
His historical research produced such other groundbreaking works as "The Theater of Black Americans" (1980), "Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors" (1984), "The Jamaican Stage 1655-1900: Profile of a Colonial Theatre" (1992), "Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre" (1994), and the recently published "A History of African American Theatre" (2003) co-authored with James V. Hatch, professor emeritus at City University of New York.
Performance and ticket information
Performances of "Man Better Man" are Nov. 21-24 with a curtain time of 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $5 for students with I.D. They're being sold on the UVI campus at the bookstore in the Sports and Fitness Center and at the Humanities Division office, as well as at Nisky Pharmacy, Parrot Fish Music and Dockside Bookshop.
If any performance is not sold out in advance, tickets also will be available at the door. The Little Theatre seats about 125 people and sellouts are the rule for UVI productions; so, it's a good idea to get tickets in advance.
For more information, call 693-1355.
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