Jamaica’s pantomime: upstaging tradition

Jamaica’s National Pantomime has been a Christmas-season tradition since the 1940s, entertaining tens of thousands while preserving folk culture

1973’s Dickance for Fippance. Photograph courtesy the Little Theatre MovementA scene from the 2004 Pantomime, Iffa Nuh So. Photograph courtesy the Little Theatre MovementGreta Burke and Henry Fowler. Photograph courtesy the Little Theatre MovementOliver Samuels and Louise Bennett on stage. Photograph courtesy the Little Theatre Movement

Deck the halls with red poinsettias. Serve up sorrel, fruitcake, and heaping slices of ham. Put on your best Sunday clothes and make a trip to Kingston’s Grand Market. But to really experience a traditional Jamaican Christmas, you have to make a pilgrimage to the National Pantomime.

Beginning on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, all roads lead to Kingston’s Tom Redcam Avenue, where the Little Theatre Movement hosts its National Pantomime. Cars roll in from uptown and downtown. Country buses pull up, carrying whole villages from remote rural areas. Visitors stream in from the United States and the United Kingdom and islands around the Caribbean — all to see the oldest theatrical tradition in the region.

For some, the word pantomime evokes the silent dramas of Greek history. But there’s nothing silent about the Jamaican version. Jamaica Pantomime is a raucous spectacle of song and dance that simultaneously celebrates the island’s history and culture and satirises current events and popular figures. It’s an indelible part of the country’s entertainment calendar, with a cast of characters and a story as colourful as any of the plots that have unfolded on its stage.

Jamaica Pantomime finds its roots in the English original of the genre: classic childhood fairy tales adapted into theatrical amusements, always performed at Christmas time. Star-crossed lovers and a grotesquely costumed man portraying a Dame were among the stock characters of each production.

In 1941, Henry Fowler and Greta Burke founded the Little Theatre Movement with the goal of developing drama in Jamaica. That same year, the couple, who would later marry, staged their first pantomime. Jack and the Beanstalk took the stage at Kingston’s stately Ward Theatre, then well known as a testing ground for Broadway plays and the works of leading writers such as Noel Coward. The early plays stayed true to the English tradition: Jack was followed by such classics as Babes in the Wood (1942), Aladdin and His Magic Lamp (1945), Cinderella (1947), and Beauty and the Beast (1948). But even in those early days the English conventions were under threat. The first truly Jamaican Pantomime, Soliday and the Wicked Bird, arrived on stage in 1943, and the Jamaicanisation of the genre was off and running.

Enter theatre legends Louise Bennett and Ranny Williams. Writers, actors, and cultural activists, “Miss Lou” and “Maas Ran” wrote and performed in many of the Pantomimes of the 1950s and 60s, infusing them with Jamaican language, folk tales, and cultural situations. Williams was both a dramatist and a comedian, and had been a close associate of Marcus Garvey. Bennett was a playwright and poet, by then well known for her championship of Jamaican dialect. Under their skilled pairing, folklore replaced fairy tales as the primary source of inspiration, yielding titles such as Bluebeard and Brer Anancy (1949), Anancy and Beeny Bud (1958), Jamaica Way (1959), and Carib Gold (1960). A new male comic lead emerged, patterned after the clever Anancy character of West African folktales, and expertly personified in multiple pantomimes by Ranny Williams. Under Williams and Bennett, almost all the English elements were expunged, and a new Jamaican ethos emerged, leaving only the Christmas date as a nod to the English legacy.

Ranny and Miss Lou gave life to Pantomime as we know it,” says Barbara Gloudon, coordinator of the Pantomime and chairman of its production company, the Little Theatre Movement. “They put a Jamaican stamp on it, and gave it a purpose that has lasted throughout the years.” As the Jamaican model evolved, social commentary and satire became entrenched in the form. As Gloudon describes it, the modern Jamaican Pantomime now serves the dual purpose of shedding light on fading folk tales and challenging social issues.

Gloudon, herself a key architect in the growth of the modern Pantomime, has written more than twenty since her first, Moonshine Anancy, in 1968.

“What we try to do with Pantomime,” she says, “is to take a little bit of Jamaica at a time and preserve it. I really believe something has to be done to help preserve Jamaican culture, which is disappearing. Culture isn’t just entertainment. It’s a way of life, and our way of life is disappearing. Our children don’t eat Lucea yam, but they eat fried Idaho potatoes. The things that make up a nation — the food, the music, the dance — our traditional way of life is disappearing. People don’t know [our history], and worse, they don’t care.

“We try to take history and turn it on its head; to make people laugh, to make them think, but most of all to make them care.”

Gloudon, a journalist and talk show host, heads up the small band of loyalists responsible for staging the annual performance. Credits for the National Pantomime read like a who’s who of Jamaican theatre. Musical artists including Rita Marley, Lovindeer, Boris Gardner, Peter Ashbourne, Sonny Bradshaw, and Noel Dexter have all been involved in the Pantomime, as have well known contemporary Jamaican playwrights such as Aston Cooke and Alvin Campbell.

“Pantomime has value well beyond what happens on the stage,” says Campbell, author of Jangah Rock (1996). “It’s contributed to the development of music and theatre in this country in a way that’s almost impossible to quantify. The actors, singers, writers we have today . . . [many] came out of the Pantomime movement. The NDTC [National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica] owes many of its dancers, costume designers and choreographers to the Pantomime.”

A small company of thirty actors, singers, and dancers now stages each year’s show. The company performs from December through May, taking a brief rest before spending the summer sharpening their skills. The traditional “Augus’ Mawnin” performance of folk songs signals the return to work on 1 August. Readings begin in September, rehearsals begin in October, and on 26 December a new slice of history and culture is presented to the public. Between 26 December and 1 May , over 100 performances are staged before a collective audience of more than 45,000. In 2001, the Pantomime moved from its historic home at downtown Kingston’s Ward Theatre to the Little Theatre uptown, in order to accommodate its audiences more comfortably.

Produced on a shoestring budget, the show affords its players only a small stipend. Costumes and props are handled with care and recycled for use in future productions. Despite limited financing, the company manages to tour, boasting sell-out performances across the Caribbean and in the US and UK. All proceeds from each year’s performance are reinvested into the next year’s show.

“Nobody in Pantomime does it for the money,” says veteran composer Grub Cooper, who has written music for nearly two dozen pantomimes. “We do it for the history and the tradition.”

he landscape of Jamaican theatre has changed much since the Fowlers’ day. On any given weekend, Kingston teems with dozens of local theatrical productions, but, for many, Pantomime still takes pride of place.

“There’s something about Pantomime that just feels right,” says Teresa Parke, a mother of one who takes her son each year, and recalls going with her own mother as a child. “The story is always simple enough for a child to understand, but it pokes fun at current events in a way that makes it relevant for adults. The best part is seeing the children in the audience just marvelling at what they’re seeing on stage. Pantomime is about family and fun and Christmas and being Jamaican. It’s just a wonderful tradition.”

Gloudon credits the show’s longevity both to the company’s sense of mission and the fact that that sense of family infuses the cast and crew as well. “We’re good to our people and we make them feel that they’re part of something important.”
There’s a nursery backstage at the Little Theatre, and a homework centre run by two cast members who are teachers. The company has given everything from insurance and scholarships to basic meals to its members. “We look out for each other. That’s why we’ve survived,” says Gloudon. The company counts among its members its very own Pantomime babies — children born to cast members during the run of a production. Gloudon’s own daughter Anya, who now serves as the company’s costume designer, was born during the 1972 run of Hail Columbus.

“We’re a small, tight-knit group, so everybody has to pull together,” says Gloudon. “We have great actors and singers and dancers and workmen. Everybody knows their craft inside and out, but there are no stars. When everyone plays their part well, then the work is the star.”

The value of that work is being recognised by more than the annual audiences who flock to see the Pantomime. As the Christmas season passes and the holiday crowds fade each year, a wave of students and researchers of Caribbean culture take their place. The Pantomime is often incorporated into school curricula, with essay questions and research papers assigned on its significance. In fact, the bulk of the audience from New Year’s Day to the show’s final performance in May is comprised of school groups; students of all ages assigned to study each year’s production. To facilitate the further study of the Pantomime and to preserve its rich history, the Little Theatre Movement plans to create a Pantomime Museum — a move that will ensure that the gift of the Pantomime can be enjoyed all year round.

“The Pantomime has to keep going,” says Parke.

“It’s like a voice from our past and our present that we can’t let be silenced.”

Pantomine history

Pantomime (from the Greek word meaning “all in mimic”) is a silent form of drama in which the story is developed by movement, gesture, facial expression, and stage properties. Pantomimes exist among many world cultures, including the Chinese, Persians, Hebrews, and Egyptians. Jamaican pantomime finds its roots in the English version of the form — originated by the London actor-manager John Rich in the early 18th century — which was more pageant than silent performance. In 1818, when J.R. Planche began his extravaganzas with “speaking openings,” pantomime in England became a dramatic spectacle with songs and speeches. By the early 20th century, English pantomimes had evolved into elaborate stage representations of childhood tales, heavy on musical numbers and dance performances.

Faces in the company: key Jamaica Pantomime players over the years

Ranny Williams: a close associate of Marcus Garvey, Williams served as the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s director of culture. He appeared in 29 pantomimes, five of which he wrote or co-wrote.

Rex Nettleford: former Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and founder of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, Nettleford has directed, choreographed, and arranged movement for several pantomimes.

Paul Keens-Douglas: the Trinidadian storyteller acted in Moonshine Anancy (1969) while a student in Jamaica.

Rita Marley: wife of reggae great Bob Marley and a singer and actress in her own right, Marley was part of the cast of Brashana O! (1978).

Major milestones

Johnny Reggae (1978)
One of the highest grossing pantomimes ever, Johnny Reggae is considered a breakthrough in Jamaican theatre. Says Barbara Gloudon, “It brought in the people of the streets to the theatre. I remember seeing the lines of people outside the Ward Theatre and realising we had done something important. Johnny Reggae paved the way for what’s happened in popular theatre since.”

The Pirate Princess (1981)
Based on a true story, Pirate Princess was one of the most successful touring pantomimes, and was performed in London’s West End.

River Mumma and the Golden Table (1986)
Written by Aston Cooke, River Mumma was based on a folktale about a mermaid in Jamaica’s Rio Cobre river.

Schoolers (1989)
A provocative send-up of the turbulent 1980s, Schoolers chronicled the experiences of Jamaican schoolchildren on and off the dysfunctional public bus service.