Guyanese Red Ladies in the Spotlight — by Francis Quamina Farrier

Commentary: By Francis Quamina Farrier

Some months ago, I wrote an article in which I ‘shook hands’ with the ‘redmen’ of Guyana, so to speak. In that article I paid tribute to the late Dr. Michael Gilkes, who had just passed on due to health complications brought on by the coronavirus.

The article was extremely well received not only by ‘redmen’, but by a wide cross-section of Guyanese both at home and abroad. One level of observation which I received, was that I should consider it necessary to write another article – this time about the ‘red ladies’ which I am now embarking on.   

Here is a sample of the appeal sent by those, after reading my previous article, “The Last of the Red Men,” as they rooted for an article in which the spotlight should be thrown on the red ladies. Topping the list was Dorothy Taitt, the matriarch of the Georgetown ‘royals’ of the day. “You did not mention the titanic presence of Aunt Dorothy Taitt who encouraged us with our dreams.” I was gently chided by my dear Theatre Guild colleague of the past, Ricardo Smith. When the genteel, gentleman Ricardo chides you, it is time for you to straighten up and fly right. Get yourself in order and make corrections to whatever your misdemeanor may have been. Ricardo never looks down on anyone. He simply gives a hands-up to those who he can help. In the end, you will always feel a sense of purpose after a discussion with him. As such, I am now on my way to please not only Ricardo Smith, but all who are interested in learning about some of the great ‘red’ heroines of pre-independence Guyana, principally Dorothy Taitt.

Red Lady, Mrs. Dorothy Taitt, could have been a combination of Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain. Back in those colonial days – and that remark must not be mis-interrupted to mean that I prefer the colonial days, since I do not. Bear in mind that Dorothy Taitt, or Aunt Dorothy as she was familiarly called, lived during the colonial era of our beautiful country. The big difference Aunt Dorothy had over those two powerful ladies of Great Britain, was Talent. As you see, talent with a capital “T”.  I will be back to Aunt Dorothy shortly.

I continue with the salutation, “Howdy, howdy, howdy!” That is the way ‘Red lady’ Pauline Thomas aka Auntie Comesee, used to address her audience at the commencement of her cultural presentations, whether on stage or on the radio. Pauline Thomas aka Auntie Comesee, was a Public Servant, and was also a dynamic singer and actress. I had the pleasure of directing her in one of my plays, “Manaka” at the Theatre Guild Playhouse in Kingston, Georgetown. She was dynamic in her role as the no-nonsense Rhoda Souviner, a woman on a timber grant in Guyana’s hinterland. As Auntie Comesee, she would give condemnations as well as commendations to her audience, both male and female, regarding issues of the day such as how to behave in a world with HIV and AIDS. Red lady Pauline Thomas aka Auntie Comesee, became a household name all across Guyana. You would be pleased to know that Pauline Thomas, now in her 90s, lives in Canada and is still as vibrant as ever. In fact, she attended University while in her 70s and earned a degree.

I continue with Sheila King. Professionally, she was a Social worker attached to a government department. She was also an actress, playwright and poet. Sheila King also appeared in a few of my plays, both on stage at the Theatre Guild and on radio at Radio Demerara. She was extremely disciplined and was a role model for younger females both on and off stage.

On to Murray Street (Now Quamina Street). “The Taitt yard (which is located on the northern side mid-way between East and Thomas streets,) was known for its wonderful fruit trees, the most famous being the giant sapodilla that supported one of the first basket ball rings in Guyana.” according to Dr. Vibert Cambridge, President of the Guyana Cultural Association of New York, Inc. In his younger years, Vibert Cambridge and others such as Ken Corsbie, were youngster who were regulars at “The Taitt Yard” and the palace-like Woodbine house. He and many others benefited from the cultural groundings from Aunt Dorothy.

Dorothy Taitt dominated that Murray (Quamina) Street space without a doubt. She was the wife of Dr. Jabez Taitt whose clinic was within the building. Together the couple had seven children. A titan in the world of the Arts, she also dabbled in local politics as a one-woman battering ram, if you will. She was a fierce and fearless fighter for the under-dog. At a time when most “Red Women” would remain quiet, sometimes arrogant, in their privileged upper- middle class existence, Aunt Dorothy was out of the Taitt’s Yard, and in battles with oppressors of the less fortunate. She defended individuals of darker skin tone against whites and locals of lighter complexion against discrimination and bigotry. Some of her social fights were with the Mayor and Town Hall. She was not a bonified politician or Labour Leader, but she functioned regularly as such. Servants and helpers with darker complexions were always treated with human dignity by Dorothy Taitt, unlike others of her complexion. For Aunt Dorothy, there was life beyond “The Yard”. There were members of the underdogs of society who needed help, and she considered herself a helper and gave a hands-up wherever and whenever and however she could.

As a Cultural activist and provider, Dorothy Taitt hosted rehearsals of many up-coming concerts of the performing arts – arts festivals included, at her Woodbine location. There was the occasion when her group entered the annual British Guiana Music Festival and was trounced by a group from New Amsterdam. For a Georgetown group to have placed second to a ‘country’ group was most humiliating. But Aunt Dorothy took it like a ‘man’ – rather, a woman – a red woman. There was no moaning or groaning or criticizing the winners.

She herself was an accomplished singer. Her daughter Helen Taitt was one of Guyana’s greatest ballet dancers. All who embraced the performing arts, were welcomed into the Taitt Yard where they enjoyed all the available facilities and the open arms of Aunt Dorothy. While relative Dr. Michael Gilkes wrote and performed his captivating one-character play, “The Last of the Redmen,” the life of ‘Aunt’ Dorothy is ‘meaty’ material for a hit movie. Do you recall the Hollywood musical, “Calamity Jane” with Doris Day in the title role of a dynamic woman? Now, could you think of a play or movie based on the life of Dorothy Taitt? Certainly, the word “calamity” would not be in the title.

Guyana’s Dave Martins composed a song with the title, “Caribbean, where are your heroes?” Maybe Dave will sometime compose a song with lyrics which state, “Guyana, remember your heroine. She was the boss at the Woodbine.” Aunt Dorothy Taitt showed that whether one is black or white, brown or yellow, dread or red, one should live one’s life to the fullest in harmony with every other fellow human as best as is humanly possible. Her time on earth was from 1896 to 1956, and it was the fortune that it was spent in this 83,000 square mile sole South American English-speaking Land of Many Waters, Guyana.

The B.G. Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert at the Queen’s College. (circa 1948)

“Red Lady”, Dorothy Taitt of the ‘Woodbine Palace’ on Murray Street, in colonial British Guiana. (Circa 1948)

Dorothy Taitt with her husband Dr. Jabez Taitt.

Dorothy Taitt sits with pride with members of her talented choir.

Ricardo Smith in The Mikado, one of the greatest stage success of Dorothy Taitt.

Clairmont Taitt with sister Helen Taitt performing a ballet duet. (All photos compliments of Marina Taitt)

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Comments

  • brandli62  On October 28, 2020 at 7:43 am

    Francis, many thanks for sharing this lovely story of arts and culture in BG back in the last century! What ever happened to the B.G. Philharmonic Orchestra? Did it survive independence?

  • wally n  On October 28, 2020 at 1:09 pm

    question….was Helen Taitt ever married…anyone know???

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