Caribbean Theater Takes Center Stage at U.Va. Conference

A melange of speech, song and dance that moved between scholarly and celebratory expression took place on Grounds this week.

The University of Virginia’s first-ever Caribbean Theater Conference brought together playwrights, storytellers, theater practitioners, scholars and students from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti and France for roundtable discussions, staged readings and theater workshops, capped with an eclectic and exotic Caribbean theater performance.

Caribbean theater is unique in that many of the plays are not written down and published, and performances often take place in small theaters and are not well publicized.

Conference co-organizer Stéphanie Bérard, assistant professor of French in the College of Arts & Sciences, discovered the vibrant Caribbean theater scene when she was working as a high-school French teacher on Guadeloupe.

She now teaches seminars on Caribbean theater, and her 2009 book, “Théâtres des Antilles: traditions et scènes contemporaines,” covers more than 40 years of Caribbean theater, based on four years of research on Guadeloupe and Martinique. Located in the French Indies and still a part of France, the two islands’ multicultural identity – a blend of Caribbean, African and European cultures – has produced a unique style of theater.

At conferences around the world, Bérard noticed a growing interest in Caribbean theater. Whether a conference was devoted to drama, French literature or post-colonial studies, Bérard saw that people were impressed by the diversity, richness and sophistication of Caribbean theater. Consequently, it was only a matter of time before she organized a distinct conference on U.Va. Grounds.

The conference, “Contemporary Caribbean Drama: Creating a Dialogue between Academia and the Stage,” took place Monday and Tuesday. Organized by Bérard and associate drama professors Theresa Davis and Kate Burke, the conference was sponsored by the French and drama departments and funded by the Page-Barbour Lecture Series.

The conference’s roundtable discussions, all conducted in French, ranged from questions of identity in Caribbean theater to the influence of ancestral spirituality found in the music of Jimi Hendrix, to the very nature and meaning of theater itself.

Tuesday afternoon Haitian writer and actor Guy Régis Junior read parts of his play “Ida,” accompanied by mesmerizing voodoo songs performed by Leonica Pierre Maintus, a Haitian singer and actress, whose emotional performance underscored the dramatic thrust of Junior’s words. When Maintus wasn’t singing, she patiently stood still behind the playwright, transfixed, as if absorbed by the fluent rhythms of the playwright’s language.

The conference culminated with a performance Tuesday evening by the Siyaj Theater Company of Guadeloupe at the Culbreth Theatre that utilized oral traditions to create a dialogue between words and music.

Actor and company artistic director Gilbert Laumord, along with musician Jocelyn Ménard, performed “Chante moi un conte, conte moi une chanson (Sing me a tale, tell me a song),” in a highly physical, humorous and musical storytelling event.

Laumord – whose deep voice resonated with Ménard’s passionate saxophone, flute and percussive work – narrated the misfortunes of a fisherman who cannot resist the desire to tell a king of his recent experiences.

With a mix of speech, song and dance, Laumord’s body moved in unison with his voice, as ritual, repetition, dance, contortion, pantomime, sound effects all combined to create an extraordinary tour de force. In a Carribean version of call-and-response, Laumord encouraged the audience to respond with sounds, shouts, snapping fingers and clapping, creating a party atmosphere.

Throughout his performance, Laumord accompanied his dramatic torrent of words, speech and sounds with body movements – sometimes on his knees, walking backwards or twisting in space – at times pushing the limits of human contortion.

As a coda to the performance – and to the conference itself, the play concluded, not with a blast, but with a subdued calm as Laumord played a quiet blues song on his guitar, accompanied by Ménard’s sax, as the light from lanterns on stage faded gently to near darkness.

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Robert Hull

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