Obituary: Errol Hill ; Dramatist and Foremost Historian of Black Theatre

By Bourne, Stephen | The Independent (London, England), September 24, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Errol Hill ; Dramatist and Foremost Historian of Black Theatre

Bourne, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)

BEFORE HE became a highly respected dramatist and theatre historian, Errol Hill was partly responsible for forming the modern era in Caribbean theatre. As early as 1946 he founded, with another Trinidadian, Errol John, the Whitehall Players, one of the first theatre companies in the Caribbean.

With British Council support and its headquarters at Whitehall, Port of Spain, the Players adopted the policy of taking their productions to the people, performing at hospitals and other public institutions and in the open air in small towns and villages. An issue of the journal The Caribbean Writer noted in 2001,

When the urgency for plays with West Indian themes and language became apparent, Hill not only wrote his own, but also advanced Caribbean drama with notable innovations. He utilised the vernacular, a radical and controversial departure for the time, and incorporated aspects of Trinidadian and Caribbean culture.

Hill was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1921 and, after forming the Whitehall Players, in 1949 received a British Council scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1951 he gained a diploma from Rada, and he was also awarded a diploma in dramatic art from London University. At the Colonial Students' Residence in Hans Crescent House, London, Hill directed the members of the West Indian Student Association in two productions: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (1951) and Derek Walcott's Henri Christophe (1952). The casts included many names that would soon become famous in Caribbean literature, culture and politics.

Although Hill found work as an actor and announcer on BBC radio in 1951- 52, including the popular series Caribbean Voices, roles for black actors in Britain in the early 1950s were extremely limited. However, in 1950 Hill did find an opening with the left- wing Unity Theatre.

Returning to the Caribbean in 1953, Hill was appointed as a drama tutor at the Extra-Mural Department of the newly opened University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. In 1955 he began to publish plays with Caribbean themes in the Extra-Mural Department's Caribbean Plays series. For many years, this series provided the only available texts of Caribbean drama.

His first published collection included his own steel-band play The Ping- Pong (1958). In 1958 Hill received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to attend the Yale School of Drama where, in 1962, he gained a BA and an MFA in playwriting.

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