HAIL KEN CORSBIE – by Dave Martins + videos

HAIL KEN CORSBIE by Dave Martins. Credits Stabroek News,

Ken Corsbie

Ken Corsbie

Since living in Guyana again I have seen first-hand the need for us to hold up our own achievers, to shout about them, not only for the praise that is due but, more pivotally, for the powerful information about our worth that is passed on to the new Guyanese wending their way, here and abroad. While that is clearly a national mission, we should all do our part in promoting the image and today I come in that vein to hold up the name of Ken Corsbie who was honoured two weeks ago in Barbados as the 2016 recipient of the Earl Warner Trust Lifetime Achievement Award.

The late Earl Warner was a skilled theatre director and the Trust was set up by his wife, Karen, to commemorate his name, to assist up and coming dramatists, and to honor those who had given a lifetime of theatre service in the Caribbean. (Other Guyanese awardees have been Michael Gilkes [poet, playwright, video producer], and Clairmonte Taitt [actor, violinist, director].

Although our younger Caribbean generations may not know his name, Ken Corsbie has been a pivotal figure in regional theatre, operating in a number of genres off the stage and on it, for years. He came into my life, coincidentally almost 50 years ago, when with the formation of the Tradewinds band in Toronto I came to Guyana for a performance and was in the audience at the Theatre Guild for a show called ALL AH WE featuring Ken, Marc Matthews, Henry Muttoo, John Agard, and panman Camo Williams. Starting out far away in my own quest to write songs on Caribbean themes, it struck me instantly that ALL AH WE was independently on that same path. It is important to remember that in those years dialect material was something for the bottom house or the rum shop. To see it in “the theatah”, full blown and no apologies, was a shot in the arm for me at a time when I was searching for my future.

I was to learn later than Ken had started out on this, at the time, perilous venture in the early 1970s after seeing a Theatre Guild performance by the Guyanese actor/poet/playwright Slade Hopkinson, based in Trinidad, part of which featured Caribbean material which drew the biggest reaction from the audience. Ken recalls, “As corny as it sounds, in that theatre at that time, I had an epiphany – that was the direction I must try, I will make.” Just a few weeks later, Ken was on the Guild stage, “HE ONE” in a programme focused on Caribbean literature – poems; short stories; anecdotes. He remembers being buoyed by the instant audience enthusiasm, and shortly thereafter the epiphany broadened when he teamed up with Marc Matthews, a gifted actor with an imposing presence, for the now almost legendary DEM TWO. “Our opposite aesthetics, dynamics, personalities were the perfect match,” said Ken. “I was the technician (I had my 2 years at the Rose Bruford College for Speech and Drama in England) and he was the primal force. I would be downstage doing my thing, Marc would be upstage, off the side, listening, but the audience kept flicking their attentions to him – that is star quality. Anything could happen, so they had to keep an eye out.”

DEM-TWO was an instant hit, popping up all over Guyana and touring Barbados, St.Lucia, St.Vincent, Antigua, Bahamas, Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad and Dominica. Expansion of the group came with the addition of actor/designer Henry Muttoo in the mid-70s. “We were ripe for an upsizing and outreaching,” said Ken. “Henry instantly changed and expanded our repertoire and more importantly, our dynamics. Much later it forcibly hit me that we were the Caribbean on that stage – we were Chinese, Scottish, African, Amerindian, East Indian, Portuguese. And then, Johnny Agard joined us – oh goodness – we were complete. Wherever we performed, we surprised the audiences with our Caribbeanness.” That’s what hit me the first time I saw ALL AH WE. There was this instant connection; it was me up there on the stage. It’s interesting to look back on that unit 50 years later and see that Marc has won the Guyana prize for his poetry, Johnny has the Queen’s Gold Medal for his poetry, Henry has an MBE and Hon. Doctorate from the Cayman Islands College, and Ken has several awards from Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad, Cayman Islands, and Guyanese associations in the diaspora.

Ken Corsbie has generated a long career in theatre and performing. He moved to Barbados in 1979 to be coordinator of the Theatre Information Exchange (TIE) funded by the Inter American Foundation of the USA to form channels of communication and cooperation between the theatre activists in the Anglophone Caribbean, and although the project funding ended after three years, it had brought Caribbean dramatists closer together.

Along the way Ken was involved with a unique television documentary programme called Caribbean Eye, created written and produced by Banyan Studios in Trinidad run by Christopher Laird, Tony Hall and Bruce Paddington, partly funded by UNESCO. Ken hosted the series where various themes were chosen to illustrate the connections in Caribbean cultures. He won a Narrator’s Award for his work, and his natural stage presence and relaxed delivery lent a professional warmth to the programmes some of which are still available on You Tube. Over the years, he has also been very busy as a solo stage performer, replaying his HE ONE personality, and since moving to the USA in 1996 he has been all over the diaspora map doing his one-man shows.

There are people in Caribbean history who make a significant contribution to their countries by, so to speak, stretching the fabric of their societies to offer new directions or to bring alterations to old ones. They change the landscape of the culture, and we are often unaware of the change at the time; it is only in retrospect that we see it. They come in diverse forms but they are a special breed. Louise Bennett of Jamaica is one with her riveting impact on dialect poetry. Guyana’s Henry Muttoo with his contribution in theatre and set design is another; Henry has delivered highly acclaimed influences on Caymanian culture with his innovative and dedicated work. Similarly, John Agard has put Caribbean language into the awareness of the British society where he lives. And there are others too numerous to mention here. Every one of those innovators, while doing their own work so trenchantly, are also opening windows for other artists to come through, and as I pointed out in my song, “Where Are Your Heroes, Caribbea”, our societies don’t always recognize their efforts. Ken Corsbie, a salient part of that ALL AH WE team, is one of those change merchants. It is rewarding to see a Caribbean institution, the Earl Warner Trust, recognizing his hand and his talent and his commitment. It is an honour long due.

Videos by Ken Corsbie – Caribvoices

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  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 03/21/2016 at 12:55 pm

    I miss Dem Two and All Ah We. My heroes. Needed that laugh on this gray day 🙂

  • Henry Muttoo  On 03/21/2016 at 7:29 pm

    Thank you for this, Dave. Ken remains a true Giant of Guyanese and regional theatre, Radio, TV and Sport. How much better would we have been if you were residing in Guyana and was a part of the ALL AH WE group in those heady days. Of course, you have charted you own inimitable course and given us a legacy of music, creativity and patriotism second to none. I have had the pleasure and extreme good fortune to re-kindle our friendship in Cayman and be on the receiving end of your generosity.

  • Roy Khan  On 03/21/2016 at 11:58 pm

    Henry is so right Dave. I would have loved to you guys performing together. Point and counter-point along with great music.

  • marc matthews  On 03/22/2016 at 2:48 am

    Is only after that, sometimes you does become aware of, beginings Commonwealth Institute london somewhere between the 60 and theatre Guild..Ken come up with a plot motivating presentation of Sultan @ Tengar Porkocker Adventure talking the talk, he direct, design set wit Me, Reds, Andre Proctor..Recaling dat what mek me feel comfortable an’ confident fuh sey um was clear indication signifying ah direction…ah commitment to acknowledge the unique sameness in we difference an’ Ken, never falter the Bannuh remains faithfully to that path. Tek Theatre Information Exchange again a manifestation of that dedication, for meself he is an inspiration from way way back inna ‘dat ya’d’ he like talk bout, he coaching me fuh do Stradle style High Jump….The excitement he infused in he theatre, the innovative workshops, technical as well as performance, directorial crafts…his holistic( he a badass lights designer yea)
    Philosophy of ‘theatre’ and belief in its sociocultural validity has finally been given the deserving recognition and acknowledgement beyond regional limitations. NUFF NUFF PRAISES AND RESPECT..@ Gratitude for the encouragement you does give I.m,..
    Tank yu Dave …like how yu Talk bout a giant like yuself.

  • Ken Corsbie  On 03/22/2016 at 10:22 pm

    Hi man… allyuh talking like is dead ah dead.. like is a epitaff..
    like Chris Laird reminds me that when people haven’t seen a person for a long long time and they meet up.. “eh eh man, I say you dead”
    But coming from you, all the more appreciated.. no man i a island, and so on and so on.. and all yuh just as epitaphical..

  • walter  On 03/23/2016 at 11:15 am

    One of the very talented Guyanese, last time my buddies came over, played some of his performances from you tube. Took little time for the kids to recognise, parents use some of the same threads of comments, as he does. Guyana water runs deep, like to thank him for everything.

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