Riddim Nation: Bring Yuh Riddim – a Review²

This review appeared in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday on March 8, 2022 as, “Sterling performances…but pitfalls affect Riddim Nation“.

Trinidad Carnival, its ethos, and its traditional characters and creative performances — the moko jumbie, midnight robber, kalenda, the steelband, and more — have been the inspiration for a number of books, plays, dance productions, and even jazz music outside of the annual calypso/soca song cycle. In the realm of local theatrical productions, there exists a significant body of work and a history of pioneering achievements that would justify Errol Hill’s theory of total theatre based on the region’s Carnivals as the only true West Indian theatre: “a theatre in which music, song, mime, dance, and speech are fully integrated and exploited.” Add to this corpus of work, the recently produced Riddim Nation: Bring yuh riddim, written and directed by Penny Gomez, and produced by Czar Limited, helmed by Carnival event entrepreneur, Jules Sobion.

This production, held on the COVID-19 limited Carnival Monday and Tuesday at the Lord Kitchener Auditorium of the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Port of Spain, follows a new trend begun last year by this producer to introduce another element of Carnival entertainment into the milieu devoid of fetes, parades and other mass participatory events. Riddim Nation appears to have been inspired by the Dimanche Gras shows of the 1950s and early 60s, by attempting to pull together elements of our festival heritage under a coherent theme to present a “valid” theatrical production with dramatic dimensions that remains faithful to the spirit of Carnival.

The theme, in this case, is the continuous search for and ultimate elucidation of the inherent and sometimes improvised rhythmic pulse that drives the evolution of Carnival music and defines the festival as a whole. Broko, the protagonist in the play, is a young man who is remarkably devoid of rhythm at the beginning of the play. A series of performers and entertainers, within the context of picong, give him short lectures on the origins of the Carnival music development to fill in the blanks, and one assumes, to quantize his rhythmic imperfection. The evolution of the riddim from African hand drums to tamboo bamboo to iron and steelpan was noted. The inclusion of chutney music and the celebration of the brass bands were seen as signifying our cosmopolitanism here in T&T. As a coda to these stories, the audience was entertained by the performers, in their various musical areas, who gave the play a lift where other production elements failed it.

Opening night was beset by too any errors to make one believe that this was just nervous jitters. Stage management woes gave the production a stalled effect that extended the show to close to three hours, and tellingly, exposed an audience to the pattern of the pitfalls and pitiful nadir of bad Best Village drama productions from decades ago. Scene transitions were hampered by failing projection screens. Sound reinforcement was too poor to lift otherwise sterling performances above a low aesthetic bar. Set design and blocking were uninspired. Dramatic prose was upended by what sounded like Wikipedia entries being recited by untrained actors. A dramaturg, and possibly more preparation before a two-day-only performance would have paid dividends for a local audience.

Some highlights were obvious, as the idea of this kind of production becomes a new normal in a fully recovered Carnival, and possibly beyond the boundary as an international production. Destra Garcia is a singer and performer of the highest calibre, and her gifts were on full display here. Her comedic timing as an actress playing Broko’s mother, Singing Shirley, was admirable. Johann Chuckaree, Nishard M, Drupatee Ramgoonie, and Terri Lyons all shone as performers signalling that fine stagecraft comes with experience in front of live audiences. With foreign eyes not widely present for Carnival for the second year in a row, the context of audience participation and involvement was key. This local audience became part of the theatrical experience, and this augurs well for any revision of the play to sustain a unique Caribbean form.

The possibilities from this production and any others to come from Czar Limited rest with the recognition that the history of Carnival plays is replete with examples of efforts at a theatre rooted in the culture of the country that both have worked and did not work. The legacy of our best writers and dramatists to construct the memorable Carnival theatre experience continues. Errol Hill (Whistling Charlie and the Monster, 1964), Derek Walcott (Batai, 1965, said to be “an unmitigated calamity”), Earl Lovelace (The Dragon Can’t Dance musical, 1986), join many other local playwrights in the battle for positive audience uptake and critical praise for their productions. Some won, many lost. Penny Gomez’s name can be added to the roll call of dramatists using the Carnival as a catalyst for a varied entertainment beyond a calypso and a “wine and jam.” We wait to see if it is a temporary addition, or a passing fantasy.

©2022, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

2 thoughts on “Riddim Nation: Bring Yuh Riddim – a Review²”

    1. You’re welcome. Yes, I have production Info from the media kit, as follows:
      PRODUCTION:
      Executive Producer/Creative Concept – Jules Sobion
      Producer/Director – Penny Gomez
      Production Assistant – Keisha Julien-Rocke
      Script Writer – Penny Gomez
      Stage Manager – Prior Joseph
      Assistant Stage Manager – Johnathon Thatcher
      Stage Hands – Dillon Paul
      – Richard Greenidge
      – Re Hart
      – Nama Alexander
      Set Design /Props -Christopher Littrean
      Musical Director: Enrico Camejo
      Makeup Artist- Aaliyah Johnson
      Costumer- Kimmy Stoute Robinson
      Choreography and Dancers – Elle
      TECHNICAL:
      Lighting Design-Veeran Sookoo
      Lighting Rental- Lighting VFX: Wide Eyed Productions
      Projection Mapping- North Eleven: Johann Medford
      Audio/Visual/Screen- Media 21
      Animation/Imagery -Edson Reyes

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