THEATRE ON THE ROAD AND ON THE STAGE: RICK JAMES - CREATIVE SPACE #12 OF 2018Tuesday 25th September 2018
By Joanne C. Hillhouse
With the passing of playwright, actor, and mas builder George ‘Rick’ James this September, I find myself moved to reflect on his contribution to the creative arts – as much has and will be said about his contribution to electoral reform and transparency through his Free and Fair Election League. Also on the need for us to archive our arts. And publish our plays! A question on my mind is what will become of his papers (i.e. his plays and any creative side work). Such items, depending on the artist’s impact, have been donated to or acquired by libraries, educational institutions, archives, governments (see the Caribbean Literary Heritage Project for more on the archiving of artists papers). In Antigua and Barbuda, though, who knows? So consider this, CREATIVE SPACE’s first obituary, a recording of sorts.
Rick’s acting credits include several stage productions in the US (Blood Knot) and in England (Clouds, Detective Story, Shack Shack, The Respectable Prostitute), in addition to several BBC credits (Dr. Who – six episodes, Blake 7, Play for Today, Dixon of Dock Green). This was the1960s forward. Reflecting on his breakthroughs, James once told me in an interview, “I was able to demonstrate that someone from a small country could compete with the best.”
Screen capture – Dr. Who – The Mutants arc, 1972 – James as Cotton.
Rick’s stage productions in Antigua, after returning in 1990 and starting his own theatre ensemble, included the one man play Oulaudah Equiano, about “the engrossing story in living detail of an Igbo prince, his enslavement, and freedom” (book summary), Gallows Humour in 2005, and 2007’s Our Country, timed to coincide with the bicentenary of the British Empire Atlantic Slave Trade, and unique for telling, on a stage constructed in the open air of the King George V grounds, the story of Antigua and Barbuda from the beginning to then, drawing a vast cast from a mixed pool of professionals (keep in mind that these were not necessarily acting professionals but I remember it as an entertaining and enlightening night nonetheless and remember, too, having attended some of the rehearsals finding it impressive that he pulled it off).
Rick was himself an amateur enthusiast when he entered the Carnival mas as a designer back in the 1950s. He presented The Remnants of Rome at the first of the summer Carnival in 1957. He once reminisced that “we put out a troupe in order to get into the grounds without paying…we didn’t even get a consolation prize.” It was 20 or so of them that first year with costumes made of hard paper and leatherette, with a roast goat. “I remember getting a butcher to roast a goat and we had the slaves to carry this thing in there and the whole idea was when we get there we put on a performance where the noble or generals and so would stand in circles and the slaves would come and bring the roast goat and (the generals) would throw the scrap to them. But it didn’t work out like that, when we got there as soon as they put the thing all the slaves rushed forward and eat off the goat. That’s probably why we didn’t get any prize.” That first year notwithstanding, James noted that he was driven to raise the standard, and he did.
He went on to win Band of the Year in 1962 with Interplanetary Flag Wavers and again, in 1963, with Atlantis Revellers. He is reportedly the first back to back winner of the prize. The mas making came to a halt as he left Antigua in the early 1960s to pursue his acting dreams overseas. He didn’t return to mas until the 50th anniversary in 2007. He told me back then, another of our interviews, “I’ve been back in Antigua 16 years, and I have never been inspired to get involved in playing mas…the mas makers are playing self-indulgent mas. They’re not playing spectator mas. Before mas was for the spectator; they used to depict particular themes, now they don’t.” He didn’t win another prize – mas had changed too much – but he did manage to complete his mythological trilogy with 2007’s Ceremonial Dancers of the Cibola. It wouldn’t be his final return to mas; as he said then “It’s like theatre, once you smell the grease paint, it gets into your system.”
James outfitted for Carnival, Atlantis Revellers.
James told me in an interview once that it was his discontent with the stasis in the theatre/arts scene that prompted his entry in to politics. “Because I did not think I could do what I wanted to do in the (then political environment, I said) let me see if I can’t help create the kind of political environment in which you could do what you wanted to do without having to pay any kind of obedience to (any group).”
I learned of his death initially in a public social media posting by actress and playwright Zahra Airall who has staged plays locally and abroad as Sugar Apple Theatre, Zee’s Youth Theatre, Women of Antigua, Honey Bee Theatre, and as a teacher/playwright/director taking her students to and taking home prizes from the Caribbean Secondary Schools Drama Festival. Most recently, in September, Honey Bee Productions was a part of This is Me: Where Broadway Meets Antigua and Barbuda, with English actress Savannah Stevenson and the Antigua and Barbuda Youth Symphony Orchestra (sorry, I missed that one but these posts need sponsors; working on it). Zahra has been a force of nature when it comes to local theatre over the past 10 years or so. Her social media post reminded that I first became aware of Rick James when I placed second (“joint second”) while a student at the Antigua State College in his Rick James Ensemble’s One Act Play Competition. I still have the script of that play (Barman’s Blues) and the Rick James signed letter informing me of my prize (“Enclosed please find cheque for $150…watch the press for announcement”) dated 15th May 1992.
As I told Zahra, it was my first creative writing prize/cheque. I wanted to end with Zahra though because as a theactrivist, she continues a legacy that, per her post, he helped encourage, giving her a prize, in that same competition. The prize was for being the youngest person to enter the competition. She was 9.
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This post, sponsored by JWP Creative Writing Workshop Series, originally appeared on Jhohadli as a sponsored post; contact Jhohadli/Joanne C. Hillhouse if you wish to sponsor a future post in support of coverage of Antiguan and Barbudan arts and culture. All Rights Reserved.
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