Theater in the Bush: Art, Politics, and Community in the Bahamas

Article excerpt

There is no fight for culture which can develop apart from the popular struggle.--Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.--Paulo Friere, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The future of West Indian militancy lies in art.--Derek Walcott, "What the Twilight Says"

THERE WOULD BE NO POINT IN WRITING THESE WORDS TO EXPLAIN MY CONDUCT AND aspirations as an artist and an intellectual if, first of all, I did not believe that it was my duty to transform my community. As a Caribbean person of African decent and as a postcolonial person with a particular kind of training and perspective, I see the artist as a teacher, an activist, a catalyst, and dissenter; someone who, in the words of Edward Said (1996: 22), "belongs on the same side as the weak and the unrepresented." What I want is a more egalitarian society, a more tolerant society, a more democratic society--a society that is less exploited and exploitive. What I want is a life less brutal and cheap. I have for many years tried to make that world come into being through my art. I have been convinced that at some point art could change the world by changing people. This article describes my country, The Bahamas, and my vexed relationship to it; it describes my life in it, my life as an artist, my life as what some in my country might even call a "radical." I am amused by the term because, truly, in these prosperous Bahamian islands, most have lost all sense of what is truly at stake in the world.

This article gives a brief history of the Track Road Theater Company, which I established in 1996 at the age of 27. I will discuss the expectations, failures, and successes of the group's first 10 years. My vision of Track Road was to be a means of getting "avant-garde" theater to "the people" and of exposing them to politically progressive ideas. The operation of an amateur theater company with an anti-establishment bent in this small island society has been an education in censorship, class dynamics, systematic neglect, and popular indifference. It has also been a lesson in pragmatism. We have persisted and adapted in interesting ways. This article maps my own journey as a playwright and artist, and it offers a critical look at cultural development and the politics of identity in the post-independence Bahamas.

Let us first look at the cultural situation in my country. After over 30 years of independence from Great Britain, The Bahamas is still very much searching for its identity. The pace of social transformation and modernization since Black Majority Rule in 1967 and Independence in 1973 has been dramatic, and the nation is still trying to gain its bearings culturally. Always a marginal colony in the British West Indies, mass tourism has brought not only economic prosperity and development to the post-World War II Bahamas, but also the attendant problems of increased crime, overpopulation in the capital, depopulation and underdevelopment of the rural islands of the archipelago, the breakdown of the extended family structure, and the decline of many intangible forms of culture. To put it simply, tourism comes at a social cost (Pattullo, 1996: 80-101).

Slavery played no small part in convincing black Bahamians of their inferiority. British colonialism left Bahamians lacking in cultural confidence; we, like so many colonials, became mimic men--a phrase popularized, of course, by V.S. Naipaul (1967). Since Independence, we have exchanged English hegemony for the United States of America's cultural hegemony, partly due to our proximity (less than 50 nautical miles) and partly to the fact that the biggest U.S. exports have been its. cultural products: its music, movies, television shows, books, and mythologies. In the shadow of that behemoth called the "American Entertainment Industry," the seeds planted by our dramatists, poets, songwriters, and other artists have some difficulty sprouting and bearing fruit. …