Kendel Hippolyte: a light for St Lucia

Writer Kendel Hippolyte and Jane King want to bring down the curtain on the search for a home for their pioneering theatre company

Hippolyte performs at the Emancipation Day celebrations in Laborie, St Lucia, 2004. Photograph courtesy Kendel Hippolyte/Augustin BarthelmyJane King and Kendel Hippolyte. Photograph by Cecil FevrierKing in 1994, the year she won the James Rodway Memorial Prize. Photograph courtesy Kendel Hippolyte/Cecil Fevrier

“Come hell or high water, it’s going to happen,” says Kendel Hippolyte, St Lucian poet, playwright and director. He’s talking about his greatest ambition: a permanent home for the Lighthouse Theatre Company, which he and his wife, the writer Jane King, founded on July 26, 1984.

“I remember the date because Jane and I got married five days before, on July 21,” he says relaxing in the couple’s Rodney Park home.

“At that time, in the early 80s, there wasn’t one cohesive group putting on productions on a regular basis in St Lucia, there was no national theatre. There were a few groups which sprang up, but nothing really regular.”

But these groups helped perpetuate and evolve the tradition of St Lucian theatre firmly established in the 1950s by forerunners such as Derek and Roderick Walcott, Stanley French and Alan Weekes.

“The 1980s saw the beginning of the popular theatre movement, but no group at that time had a space they could call their own, and that was the difference with Lighthouse. It was the first totally dedicated theatre space in St Lucia in the 20th century,” says the 57-year-old.

“We would go in and train three or four times a week, do workshops and what have you. There was a core of four or five of us who put our own money into it and got it off the ground. We performed a lot of classic Caribbean plays, some European and African; work by St Lucian writers such as Stanley French, Hayden Forde and Floreta Nicholas and a couple of mine as well. All the time we were educating ourselves as much as the audience.”

The premises Lighthouse occupied for 17 years could barely accommodate 100 people, but this sometimes proved more than ample, as Hippolyte explains.

“Comedies would sell out, or something with a social bite would often do well. But I think it’s fair to say that, for the more serious stuff, there was a fairly small audience. The problem is it’s a small pool of people that you’re appealing to all the time.”

The company has been in hiatus since its premises were incorporated into a music school in 2001.

“That’s where we are right now,” says Hippolyte, who has written five collections of poetry, including Night Vision and The Labyrinth, and featured in numerous Caribbean poetry anthologies.

“Ever since 2001, in terms of things like regular training of the company and regular productions – that doesn’t happen. The more usual thing is, for example, the Government or somebody wants a production done: then I can pull the people together, once a space is provided for us.”

The lives of Hippolyte and King have run along parallel lines: both were schooled in Castries in the early 1960s before moving abroad for a number of years, then returning to the island of their birth to take up teaching. Their childhoods were very different, though.

King is the daughter of a surgeon, Charles Owen King, and had a peripatetic upbringing, as the family relocated each time her father was given a new posting.

“I was born in St Lucia, but we moved 16 times in my first ten years and I went to nine different schools,” she says.

In between the bag-packing, King was encouraged to develop a wide range of interests.

“My mother, Anne, is a person who is interested in everything and made sure we always did everything. I was always more interested in books and theatre than anything else.”

Hippolyte’s interest in the theatre, and the arts in general, also began at an early age.

“I was reading a lot from early on and loved it. I had two older brothers and one of them, Kent, had a number of poetry anthologies that I would read. But it’s difficult to say if that’s what really drew me to becoming a poet.

“For theatre it was definitely my eldest brother, Hogarth, who was the greatest influence. He was an actor with the Walcott brothers’ St Lucia Arts Guild and he used to ask me to help him learn lines. I remember reading over scripts at home, from about the age of eight, and then I would go and watch him rehearse down at Castries Town Hall, with Roderick Walcott directing. I would just hang around at the back of the hall and watch it all going on.”

Kendel and Jane first met as 16-year-old students, when Kendel opted to take English literature at A-Level, a subject his school didn’t offer. Instead an arrangement was made which ensured that Kendel and his friend Luther Francois (who would become a leading jazz musician) became the envy of their classmates as, four days a week, the pair travelled to the St Joseph’s Convent Girls’ School for lessons.

By the time Jane was 17 she was aching to get away from the claustrophobic confines of island life. She got her chance by winning one of two scholarships for gaining the top A-Level results in St Lucia.

“I was just dying to get out of here,” she says with conviction. “I was 17, and there were 150,000 people in St Lucia. You knew everybody and everybody knew you. People you’d never met before knew everything about you. If you walked down the street and saw an unfamiliar white face, then you knew there must be a boat in. It was that bad.”

Jane decided Scotland, and in particular Edinburgh University, was distant enough to satisfy her wanderlust. Kendel headed for Jamaica, with a scholarship to read English literature at the University of the West Indies.
By 1981, the two were back in Castries and both became teachers. Their paths crossed again when both applied to teach English at St Mary’s College.

Away from the classroom, their shared love of the arts was fuelling a desire to establish a new St Lucian theatre.

“Whilst I enjoyed the theatre in Edinburgh, everything was already being done and was already established,” says King. “So when I came back here and there was so little happening, it was a case of: ‘If you want to see anything happen, you have to do it yourself.’ And Kendel was so very interested, so we teamed up.”

They got together to form the Lighthouse Theatre Company and began directing, writing and acting in their own productions.

The couple have a 12-year-old son, Daniel, and Hippolyte has two daughters from a previous relationship, Ayodele, 35, and Idara, 34.

King says connecting with the characters she plays is always an enlightening experience.

“I enjoy the self-exploration aspect of acting, finding that character within yourself, discovering what could turn you into that person – but performance made me sick. I hated it. I would get physically ill before a performance and never enjoyed it.”

“She’s a dynamite actress, though,” interrupts Hippolyte. “She’s absolutely great.”

“I’ve fallen out of love with theatre a bit,” continues King, glossing over the compliment. “It takes all of your nights, and I was beginning to find that a little oppressive. It was like a whole great chunk of my life was being taken away.”

Time is a commodity that has become increasingly precious for King, who became Dean of the Division of Arts, Science and General Studies at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in 2006.

“I haven’t actually got time to do anything at the moment. The job doesn’t allow me to do anything really, because it consumes all of my emotional energy.”

As the author of two collections of poetry, Into the Centre and Fellow Traveller, which won the 1994 James Rodway Memorial Prize, awarded by Derek Walcott, King is an accomplished writer. She is also, currently, a frustrated writer.

“For writing, I need to have some time to put aside, and I don’t know how to organise that at the moment. I don’t need to be inspired; I just need to be left alone.”

King, who turned 57 this year, was also a member of the judging panel for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Caribbean and Canada) in 1993, 1996 and 1997, and her accolades include the Minvielle & Chastanet Fine Arts Award for creative journalism in 1984 and for poetry in 1990.

Hippolyte has written seven plays and directed more than 60 productions. He won the Minvielle & Chastanet Fine Arts Awards for literature in 1980 and 1986 and for directing (gold and bronze) in 2001. He received the St Lucia Medal of Merit (Gold) for his contribution to the arts in 2000.

He retired from his teaching post in September 2007 to allow more time for theatre and poetry, time which he is using to work on two manuscripts and a play. He says, artistically, St Lucia is a great place to be.

“I think for literature and theatre, and also to some extent music, St Lucia and Dominica are marvellously placed within the Caribbean, because of their mixed linguistic and cultural heritage.

“In theatre, for example, there are some wonderful cross-connections that an island like St Lucia can make with what happened in the anglophone Caribbean and the French-speaking Caribbean, and beyond that, to Europe and America. Most places in the Caribbean wouldn’t be able to do it; the heritage just doesn’t link up as easily.

“A place like St Lucia has captured a lot of the cultural traffic back and forth from the US and Europe. Therefore you can explore different themes and give people a different concept of what the Caribbean is about. The whole concept of the Caribbean from outside is still too locked into racial stereotypes.”

That the focus of this artistic exploration should have a permanent base is Hippolyte’s primary goal.

“I want to be able to get up on a morning and go to a working space that belongs to the company and really do some good experimental work. I want to be able to explore things theatrically, explore ways of putting ideas across with the body and the voice, really see what can be achieved, and explore theatre with a Caribbean ethos. And also to put on productions which connect with what’s going on outside.

“We’re working towards getting our own piece of land for the Lighthouse Theatre – and that would be the culmination for us.”