GUYANA: Arts on Sunday: In tribute to Ken Corsbie – By Al Creighton

Caribbean theatre began to experience very fundamental changes, formal developments, diversification, and other advancements from the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s. It is in that context that we are able to gauge the significant role of Guyanese theatre director, actor, writer, and administrator Ken Corsbie.

He has made a mark on Caribbean drama as a performer extraordinaire, and we take time to pay him tribute.       

Ken Corsbie

Ken Corsbie

Corsbie is among those whose work helped to advance Caribbean performances, which properly took off on the formal mainstream stage in the 1970s. It is in this area that his most enduring interventions during his long and varied career on stage exist. It is here that his work most meaningfully altered the form and trends of stage performance out of all the roles he has been playing.

The 70s was a very busy decade in Caribbean drama, and in the middle of several critical activities, one of the most outstanding and impactful advancements was the appearance of an act known as “Dem Two”. Corsbie and Marc Matthews, also a Guyanese actor, performance/spoken word practitioner and Guyana Prize-Winning poet had a repertoire that drove the explosion of Caribbean performance on the mainstream stage and helped to diversify modern theatre and proclaim the rise of a new form. It was ground-breaking and extended the frontiers of the Caribbean stage.

This was important because as it was making history, it also signaled another phase in the forward march of regional drama. Through more than two centuries of colonialism, performance was rich. But it was an interesting situation. As critic Mervyn Morris wrote in the early 1980s, “The history of Jamaican theatre is short, but theatre in Jamaica has a long history”. The same applied to the rest of the West Indies. The drama seen on the formal stage was dominated by visiting professional companies from America and Britain, while the effervescent theatre of the folk carried on its own life in various spaces. Those traditional forms were constantly influenced by Europe, but it was not until European drama began to experience intrusions and influence from the folk that identifiable Caribbean drama took shape.

Foremost among this was the adaptation of local novels exploited for the folklore, in the first half of the twentieth century, and the growth of backyard plays in the 1950s. Humour was foremost as these were paralleled by a thriving vaudeville tradition including comedians and the calypso tent. Dramatic traditions such as the pantomime moved forward until local dramatists were replacing expatriates on the stage by the end of the 1960s.

The 1970s were rocked by explosions. Professional theatre started to build an industry, local drama grew in prominence and popularity, as did social realism on stage, and comedy – various forms of humour – began to dominate as the popular play surged forward. A number of factors, prominent among them being the innovation of the Jamaica School of Drama, led to artistic experimentation and post-modern developments, including a wide range of liberalisation and interrogation of folk forms in both dance and drama. It was a climate for commercialisation and entertainment, as it was for experimentation, innovation, and the incorporation of indigenous forms. There was also the receipt and acceptance of the creole language on stage. And there was the dramatic introduction of “Dem Two”.

The Corsbie-Matthews combination not only characterised, but helped to concretise, popularise, and demonstrate the rise of most of the factors described above. “Dem Two” was popular. They commandeered the imagination of the entire West Indies. They therefore provided popular entertainment without adding to the kind of dichotomy that was developing between popular theatre and what was seen as serious theatre. The rapid rise of comedy and comic performances met fierce disapprobation from some quarters and critics charged them as shallow and cheap laughter.

One of the achievements of Corsbie and Matthews in “Dem Two” was that they won the acclaim of both camps. They brought together the intellectual strength of performance, put material on stage that contained some depth, and entertained with humour and pieces to which a popular audience could relate. This was not far from the kind of success that a new and rising Paul Keens Douglas had begun to achieve around the same time. “Dem Two” blended the old and the new.  They retained a touch of vaudeville and stand-up comedy, while adding folklore. However, they mixed styles and forms, and introduced modernism in a way that could hold the interest of a critical, discerning audience looking for depth. And they reinforced creole language performance.

Corsbie and Matthews demonstrated the newly contending Caribbean performance which mixed and made effective a combination of indigenous traditions. Dance was missing, and they used some recorded music, but they drew famously on story-telling traditions, audience interaction, stand-up comedy, and performance poetry when it was still very young in addition to the promotion of the literary works. A part of their appeal was the way they brought West Indian literature to life. Their repertoire included Guyanese poets Wordsworth McAndrew and Martin Carter. A favourite performance/spoken word piece was Matthews’ “Six O Clock Feeling” with its driving rhythm and nostalgic appeal. This was a pioneering performance, as they also did a number of other poems in the spoken-word style which they helped to develop. This form is now highly popular more than 30 years later.

They were later to expand into the six-member, star-studded group “All Ah We”. They added actor and poet John Agard, skilled craftsman of the then developing spoken word, but also a highly accomplished prize-winning literary (scribal) poet. Also brought on board was actor Henry Muttoo, who went on to be a foremost director and set designer in the Caribbean.  Included as well was Eddie Hooper, musician, songwriter, and singer of some renown. The sixth member was musician Camo Williams, aka Compton Narine, who advanced as a leading steel pan player.

This larger group was able to intensify the range of the hybrid and Caribbean performance forms that “Dem Two” started. They intensified the use of music and singing, two important elements of the form. Moreover, dramatic pieces and poetry were further strengthened, as the group then had a much wider range of talents including musical instruments, four expert actors and singing voices. But “All Ah We” did not match the impact and wide regional sweep of the two-man group. Besides, most of the cast left Guyana, some because of the pervading political situation in the 1980s, some because they needed career advancement. Those advancements and later accomplishments have been considerable. But the Caribbean will remember and thank Ken Corsbie and Marc Matthews for “Dem Two”.

Corsbie also has among his most telling contributions, his book, Theatre in the Caribbean, released by Hodder and Stoughton in London in 1984. He had formal training – studied drama at the Rose Buford College in the UK – but that text is much more influenced by his experience and study of theatre in the field in the Caribbean. The kind of orientation that drove “Dem Two” is therein reflected in Corsbie’s philosophy of theatre and performance. Hodder and Stoughton wanted a series, each focusing on a different branch of the arts, mainly for schools in the Caribbean, and he did the drama.

However, there is much more for which he is to be celebrated and more that marks his deep contribution to theatre in the Caribbean. Corsbie moved to Barbados in 1979 where he took off in yet another illustrious career. He first went there to take charge of Theatre Information Exchange (TIE) and excelled as a theatre director. But the most significant and memorable monument to the regional performance tradition while in the island was the largest and most acclaimed Story-Telling Festival ever seen in the Caribbean.

It was really an international festival that ran for a number of years at the beginning of the 1990s at the Central Bank Auditorium in Bridgetown. Corsbie directed and managed that event, calling in story-tellers from around the Caribbean and the USA. As a mark of its recognition of that performing art form, the festival gave annual awards known as ‘The Earthworks Awards’ to deserving story-tellers, practitioners or facilitators. This gave unprecedented prominence to a Caribbean tradition, exposing contemporary audiences to it and helping to preserve it.

What is somewhat less fabled is Corsbie’s work while he was still in Guyana. He was a founding member of the Theatre Guild and was active in its formative years and in its golden age, including service as its first Playhouse Manager. He was there at the time of the likes of Wilbert Holder and Slade Hopkinson, both of whom were to be prominent members of Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theatre Workshop. The Guild was known and highly credited as a training ground for theatre practitioners through the 1960s.

This service by the Guild was a contribution to the Caribbean as a whole because so many who had training or formative years there went on to serve the West Indies in many ways. This includes the Jamaica School of Drama, the Cayman Islands, and the theatre in Barbados. Corsbie also worked as Director of Drama in the Department of Culture in Guyana.

It is of interest to note that Corsbie gives credit for his early interest in performance and his foundation training to the famous and legendary Taitt House in Georgetown. He shared his immersion in the arts there with other illustrious performers such as Helen Taitt and actor Clairmont Taitt now resident in Barbados.

Corsbie first went to Barbados to become director of TIE, an ambitious institution funded by an American Foundation with intentions to document and keep alive communication among the various theatre practitioners around the West Indies. It was a clearing house and an intended centre to keep theatrical activity alive and foster exchanges. It was a huge task but has not been among Corsbie’s greatest achievements. But when the funding came to an end after three years, he went on to be among Barbados’ most outstanding theatre directors. He was, in addition, active with the Banyan Productions of Trinidad, and was involved in at least one successful TV series.

His service to Guyana has been more extensive than what has already been mentioned. He worked as a broadcaster, journalist, and announcer at the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation, and in his early career had a one man performing act. He used to appear on stage at the Theatre Guild Playhouse as “He One”. This developed naturally when he teamed up with Matthews as “Dem Two”.

For this extensive and distinguished service, Corsbie has been several times formally decorated.  He received a Guyana National Honour, the Arrow of Achievement, and many awards in Barbados. These include the Earl Warner Trust Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. By that time, Corsbie had long been in residence in the USA, but such was the memorable impact he had made in that island. It was, according to legendary musician, song writer, singer, and columnist Dave Martins, not confined to Barbados, but was for “a lifetime of theatre service in the Caribbean”.

And so it is then, that we pay tribute by telling, incomplete as it is, the story of a story-teller without compare, a trained dramatist, an actor, director, radio broadcaster, producer, and journalist, who holds a hallowed place in the field of culture in the Caribbean.
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