A report by Ray Funk for Trinidad’s Guardian.
The National Theatre Arts Company is presenting Errol Hill’s celebrated play Man Better Man this month at the National Academy of the Performing Arts (Napa) in Port-of-Spain.
It is an important play and recognises a Trinidad theatre legend. Errol Hill—who wrote several plays, acted, directed, taught theatre in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States—wrote the first serious study of Carnival. He brought a young Peter Minshall in to do design work for him at Dartmouth College, USA, where Hill became head of the theatre department. Hill became the Caribbean’s major theatre historian through a series of seminal books and articles.
A few years ago, another of Trinidad’s seminal plays, Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, had a very successful run at the National Theatre in England.
These two playwrights—Errol John and Errol Hill— both started out together in a now little-remembered group called the Whitehall Players.
Sponsored by the British Council, the Whitehall Players produced a number of plays and nurtured the careers of many of the most important actors and writers in Trinidad at the time.
Started in 1946, they were a handful of Port-of-Spain youths interested in theatre and taken under the wing of Mrs Roy Wilson, who had been a Shakespearean actor at the Old Vic; she agreed to mentor their group. She started them reading plays, practicing movement, diction and other aspects of theatre. The group “immediately proceeded with Shakespeare readings and discussions.”
Mrs Wilson soon brought in Joan Kirbey, a former professional actor in England, and immediately got the group involved in rehearsals for what was to be their first production, The Bird in Hand, a little remembered British drawing room comedy.
The play had been a success in London in 1927. Kerbey directed and it featured both Hill and John as lead actors. The play was performed for one night on October 17 at the Government Training College in Port-of-Spain. No admission was charged and it was quite an event.
A reviewer noted that Errol John, who played barrister Ambrose Godolphin, stole the show: “I have no idea of his profession, but if he is not a member of the Bar, he should be. One seldom sees on the amateur stage such a realistic portrayal of a calm, merciless and logical barrister. It was a polished piece of acting.”
Visiting Trinidad, the great Jamaican author, Louise Bennett, who had just completed a course in dramatics at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, saw the production and noted: “The acting in this play was very good, and there was some good talent among the players.”
Their success with The Bird in Hand led the group to taking on a more formal structure. They created a constitution for the group, elected officers and started a rigorous schedule, with formalised classes every two weeks in Shakespeare and in modern drama.
It took a year before their next production—an AA Milne (best known for Winnie the Pooh) comedy. The Evening News applauded the performance: “The players are young and do not as yet possess the skill of seasoned actors, but their performance was most praiseworthy and certainly deserved more encouragement than it received.”
While the reviewer was positive on the production, he wanted some change from just productions of pieces from the London stage: “Will some local playwright come forward with the right sort of play?”
The interest in both finding and writing local plays about local life was starting to occur to both Errol Hill and Errol John, it seemed. The Whitehall Players’ next productions in the spring of 1948 were three one-act plays, including a first by Errol Hill—A Boy Comes Home.
Meanwhile, the group continued to grow. By the fall of 1948, the Whitehall Players had 30 members.
Besides their main theatre productions, they also were doing various charity presentations across the country.
Hill would later note this part of the group’s agenda: “(They) adopted early on the policy of taking their productions to the people, performing at least twice yearly at hospitals and other institutions, and in the open air in small towns and villages.”
In the fall of 1948, they returned to offering another set of three one-act plays. This time both Hill and John contributed a new one and the response was very positive. Alfred Mendes did not mince words:
“For make no mistake about it, I’m willing to stake my pygmy reputation on the prophecy that (these plays) will be regarded by future generations as the first two successful plays written by Trinidadians and produced and acted on the local stage by Trinidadians.”
He was effusive about John: “If the promise contained in How Then Tomorrow is fulfilled, it is more than likely that Errol John will write plays of social and technical significance. Moreover, he is perhaps the member of the group with the biggest potential as an actor.”
The Whitehall Players returned to a full-length play, JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. A mystery play, it had been very popular in London. John played the police inspector of the title. The Guardian reviewer praised John, asserting that playgoers “will marvel at his controlled gestures, his easy grace, the manner in which he sinks his teeth into the role of the inspector.”
Albert Gomes was effusive in his praise of Errol John: “Here is a young West Indian with all the gifts that make the outstanding actor. A fine vice, sensitive regard for the subtleties and nuances of the part he is playing, and that most precious gift of all, imagination: all these he has.”
Gomes had been in a unique position to judge his performance as he had seen both the original British production and an American production as well, but found the local production of high calibre: “It is Errol John’s performance that rivets our attention throughout.”
Another bill of one-acts by the Whitehall Players called Beyond This Vale created even more of a stir, again with plays by both Errols—Errol Hill’s Square Peg and Errol John’s The Tout. These were their most mature plays to date. Both were eventually published by the UWI’s Extra-Mural Department and The Tout was also made into a television show in Barbados in the seventies.
Also with this production, a new actor of exceptional talent, Barbara Assoon, was added to the company. Assoon was at this time also involved in dancing as a part of Beryl McBurnie’s troupe at the Little Carib. She got a letter from Sir Hugh Wooding congratulating her: “I can’t decide if you dance better than you act, or you act better than you dance,” he wrote.
“You have it in you to make a positive contribution to cultural development in Trinidad”.
Eric Williams called the production “brilliant”. He applauded the tensions in The Tout:
“John’s The Tout poses the problem of the slums. … John’s Percy is a rebel against society; rapist, murderer, and tout, he portrays the dregs of our West Indian society, and Venezuala to him is the alternative to hanging out in Trinidad. … John’s dramatic talent is positively astonishing. His portrayal of the crippled Muley, with his premonitions, who dominates the play, and of the simple Anne and the vicious Percy, is truly remarkable. The players do him full justice.”
In just a few short years, the Whitehall Players were at a pinnacle of success, but also at a point of change, with Errol Hill departing. Hill had won a scholarship and headed to England in 1949, having been awarded a British Council scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
The Whitehall Players put on their first production post-Hill in December of 1949, The Indifferent Shepherd by Peter Ustinov. It featured a new actor in the company.
“Newcomer Errol Jones did well,” wrote a reviewer, “with experience, he will learn to harness his emotions and use them profitably.” Indeed, he would become one of Trinidad’s greatest.
Errol John was only involved backstage in that production and by the summer of 1950, John had left the Whitehall Players and organised a new theatre group, the Company of Five, taking with him the talented Barbara Assoon and Leo Bennett.
Their first production was a classic of American theatre, Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie, followed by a series of one-acts, before they disbanded when John was invited by the British Council for a three-month stay in England to further his theatre studies; he would stay there for the rest of his life. In the next few years, both Assoon and Bennett would also come to England to act.
The Whitehall Players itself continued and evolved, combining with a group run by Sydney Hill, Errol Hill’s brother, to become the Company of Players, which continued to be active for many years.
In England, both Errols went on to numerous successes.
John in 1952 starred in a student production in London of Derek Walcott’s first play, Henri Christophe, that Hill directed. He would go on to act in numerous professional stage productions in England and several major films in the US and UK, including The Nun’s Story, The Sins of Rachel Cadre, PT 109 and Guns of Batasi.
He won the Observed prize for his play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which continues to be performed regularly around the world. He also wrote screenplays for UK television, acted in many different TV shows and was featured again as the star (again as an attorney) in a groundbreaking six-part TV series, Rainbow City.
Errol Hill would go on to teach in Jamaica, Nigeria and then the US, spending 35 years at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire where he was a drama professor. His scholarship on theatre and Carnival was unrivalled, but he also loved being involved in the plays themselves. Shortly before he died, he discussed his various roles in theatre beyond writing plays:
“At different stages of my life, certain things were more important to me. I enjoyed directing a lot because I could choose plays that I wanted to do, from every conceivable period of theatre, and I had the freedom to do them with the best available students—talented students. That was wonderful. Acting and directing—I loved that, (but) nobody was getting the history right; nobody was interested in what went before. So I started it, it had to be done. Whenever I felt there was a need, I took it on.”
WHAT: Folk musical Man Better Man. The play tells the story of a young man who resorts to obeah to win acclaim and gain notice from the woman he loves. With comedy, calindas, and calypso, it is a story of superstition and stick-fighting, village-life, heroism and the pursuit of love.
WHEN: Four nights—June 8-9 and June 16-17.
WHERE: National Academy for the Performing Arts, Port-of-Spain.
COST: Free, but ticketed. Tickets will be distributed at the National Academy for the Performing Arts box office, 119 Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, from Monday, June 5 from 12pm to 6pm daily while stocks last. There is a limit of two tickets per person. For further information, please contact the Culture Division at 271-2894.