Arts on Sunday: Remembering Michael Gilkes – By Al Creighton

Guyana”  (for Henry Muttoo)

  • Doan’ tell me ‘bout Guyana.
  • I barn deh in t’irty-t’ree.
  • Meh great-granfadduh was a black man,
  • granmuddah was a Puttagee.
  • One a meh granfadduh was a coolie-man,
  • ah draw Buck, white an’ Chinee.
  • Dey call it ‘the land of six peoples’
  • but is seven, unless you doan count me.           

Michael Gilkes  – From the “Prologue”

  • Noon on the barbeque of this beach. Sun striking
  • the dimpled gong of the sea. My daughter, diving.
  • Adjusting the aperture of my fish-eye lens I watch her
  • surfacing, dolphin-head pouring with hair, wearing
  • a clownish dolphin-smile, fins propelling her in
  • a dolphin-swim, backwards, yelling “Watch me, Dad!
  • I’ll do a back-flip.”
  • [flashback: Dolphin Government School. Zoom to close-up
  • The school bell. Focus on one small boy
  • reading. Background of boys, bookbags, bicycles.
  • Narrator: “Books were rivers he could slip into
  • and breathe…

Michael Gilkes

Michael Gilkes (Stabroek News file photo)

Michael Gilkes

Last week in his almost daily blog that keeps a fantastic range of Caribbean writers and critics informed of cultural developments, and in touch with each other, St Lucian poet, editor and librarian John Robert Lee, reminded that it is now one year since the loss of Michael Gilkes. In a sad irony, Gilkes was a victim of COVID-19 after a rich life in the arts and academics.

Gilkes (1933 – 2020) was a playwright, poet, director, actor, filmmaker, academic and critic. He was known in West Indian literature for his literary criticism, his academic career, for film and as a foremost stage director, particularly during his time in Barbados. In Guyanese literature he had a prominent place as one of the most accomplished and prominent playwrights, as a poet of a somewhat lesser renown, as a foremost film maker and an icon on stage as director and actor.

Gilkes had a long career at the UWI, Cave Hill in Barbados, a shorter one at the University of Guyana, and as a Visiting Fellow at University of Warwick. He distinguished himself as a critic, especially of Wilson Harris and Guyanese fiction. At Cave Hill he also served as Head of Department.

He won the Guyana Prize for Literature for the Best First published Book of Poetry with his collection Joanstown in 2002. He won it twice for Best Book of Drama – in 1992 for A Pleasant Career, and again in 2006 for The Last of the Redmen.  Yet, his earliest triumph was his most definitive. His play Couvade has been dominant in Guyanese drama. It was twice published and had two major productions on stage – in the inaugural Carifesta in 1972, and again in 1993, both directed by him. Couvade, sub-titled A Dream Play of Guyana, stands out in Guyanese literature as a drama about cross-culturalism, cultural unity, art and healing. It’s title and significant concept come from a tradition associated with Amerindian culture called ‘couvade’ in which a man takes to his bed and simulates birth-related conditions at the same time that his pregnant wife goes into labour. Gilkes built the Amerindian spiritual ritual into social commentary.

His contribution to Guyanese poetry was Joanstown, a title in which three concepts were combined. Joan was the name of his first wife, represented in the collection as first love and Muse, whose name was used to rename Georgetown.  She lent her name to a city, memorable to the poet for its former old-world charm and splendor, but made more magical as the place where Joan lived and which he remembered in more indelible terms because of her presence there. The third reference point is the Jonestown. Guyana will always be remembered for the 1978 tragedy of the People’s Temple at Jonestown in the interior, where over 900 followers of Jim Jones were murdered or drank poison at his command. “Joan” replaces “Jones” to erase the infamy and make the poet’s home remembered for something infinitely more pleasant.

Many of the poems recall old Georgetown of the 1940s, the neighbourhoods and streets where Gilkes grew up and where he interacted with his love. There is a strong sense of place that recalls the setting of Edgar Mittelholzer’s Life and Death of Sylvia. Gilkes made poetry and romance out of the setting in a way that also recalls Derek Walcott’s Another Life.

In fact, Mittelholzer is at the centre of Gilkes’ play, A Pleasant Career. This is a drama from the biography of Mittelholzer that follows him from New Amsterdam to London and beyond. The other drama, The Last of The Redmen, revisits the old Georgetown setting and focuses on the life of another prominent resident. Much of it is autobiographical, though it is a fictionalised reminiscence of a member of the Taitt family who owned Woodbine House, popularly known as Taitt House, a home to artists, musicians, dancers, athletes, poets and political activists and where Gilkes might have spent much of his youth. The title of the play refers to the coloured middleclass to which the Taitts and Gilkes belonged, and which the play presents as moribund. The Taitts included Dorothy and Dr Jabez Taitt, a Barbadian physician who had made British Guiana his home. Dorothy founded the Georgetown Philharmonic Orchestra and the Woodbine Club and her internationally acclaimed daughter Helen formed the Guyana School of Ballet. There were also Lawrence, a champion Commonwealth hurdler, psychiatrist Dr Horace Taitt, who was also an accomplished ballet dancer, theatre producer, and art collector and Clairmont, a renowned actor, for whom Gilkes actually wrote the play.

As a dramatist, Gilkes also grew up at the Theatre Guild in Kingston. One of the poems excerpted above, “Son of Guyana” was written for Henry Muttoo, who was a colleague of Gilkes at Theatre Guild. They learnt the craft of theatre there and went through several productions. Muttoo, a much praised actor, later specialised in set design and became one of the finest technicians in the Caribbean.

Gilkes left the University of Guyana for UWI and while in Barbados became the most prominent theatre director in that country. Among his most famous productions was Walcott’s Franklin, a revived version of the play, which was originally written on the Mona Campus, UWI, in 1954. Back at UG in 1993 he revisited Couvade and later teamed up with producer Gem Madhoo Nascimento in a series of other productions, mostly film. The best known of these was the venture into Wai Wai country in the interior to make a film in that setting, using local people.

Incidentally, quite a few of Guyana’s prominent writers and cultural personalities also belonged to that coloured middleclass. Foremost among them is the legendary Wilson Harris, as well as Jan Carew, both poets and fiction writers. Then there were playwright Frank Pilgrim, whose brother was musician Bill Pilgrim, actor and director Ron Robinson and actress Margaret Lawrence. One is tempted to mention Stanley Greaves, poet, painter and sculptor, but Greaves has written about his working class origins.

Gilkes celebrated that ancestry in the poem “Son of Guyana” with his reference to the many races. He echoed Walcott, who also celebrated his ethnic mix in the poem “The Schooner Flight” whose narrator/persona known as Shabine proclaimed his mixed ancestry and famously declared, “either I’m nobody or I’m a nation”. Gilkes placed himself in a similar position in that poem whose Creole speaking persona is the poet himself.

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  • Ken Corsbie  On 04/22/2021 at 11:17 am

    Thank you for this well done article on one of the “Last Redmen” playwright, actor, author, academic, film maker and friend Michael Gilkes on this anniversary of his passing.

  • wally n  On 04/22/2021 at 12:55 pm

    Ken you stay well, push ups, flax seed, we all hoping to hear from you for a long long time.

  • Joan Gilkes  On 04/23/2021 at 6:27 am

    This is a comment from Joan Gilkes who, by the way, was Michael’s first, as well as last, wife. She mourns his loss every day. The rest of the article is accurate and very well written.

  • Jo  On 04/23/2021 at 12:56 pm

    Refreshing to read about our “coloured” lives in Guyana as I live here in Canada, where a broad stroke eliminates one’s national and ethno-racial identity as such. Many have adjusted to the one-drop theory but I gag on denying my ancestors and their lives of racial intermixing dating back to the 19th century. How far North America has to go to catch up with such interracial normalcy in the Guianas. Mixed Race it was on my birth certificate, and Mixed Race I’ll remain. Thanks for the positive memories.

  • wally n  On 04/23/2021 at 1:02 pm

    OK that is two of us… who else on board?

  • Reginald Chee a toe  On 04/23/2021 at 2:21 pm

    Prof.Gilkes was my first year English Professor at UG.I enjoyed studying under him and looked forward to every class.His contribution to the arts in Guyana must be widely recognized and honored. He made Guyana proud and we,his students, miss him sorely.

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