by Curlan Campbell
- Performers recite passages of Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar
- Organisers proactive in preserving art form for future generations
- Despite an ageing population, Shakespeare Mas’ lives on
In 2018, NOW Grenada was invited to witness a unique tradition in Mt Royal, Carriacou where masqueraders prepared for the annual performance of Shakespeare Mas’. This tradition is executed on Carnival Tuesday and is among the most anticipated traditional artform around the carnival festival season, drawing vast crowds of spectators.
Just imagine having to memorise and flawlessly recite passages of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s play written in 1599. This is a long-standing tradition for Carriacou people who annually celebrate the cultural artform, Shakespeare Mas’.
Around 7 am, as is customary, the masqueraders help each other dress in elaborate handmade costumes of red, green, yellow, blue and black fabric. The ensemble is made up of long-sleeved overalls covered with triangular strips of overlapping fabric. The bodice, which has glass mirrors surrounding a black heart at the centre, is worn over a white petticoat. Strips of ‘hulu’ bells are attached to the shoes and the bodice. Participants also wear protective headgear made from cement bags, against punishment meted out during heated battles of wit, as those who fail to correctly recite passages from Julius Caesar are whipped with wires wrapped in plastic. My independent research revealed that the colours red, green, yellow and black also denote spiritual significance within West African culture. They can be found in the worship of Yoruba Orishas (deities) like Eshu (red and black), Ogun (green and black), Oshun (yellow and amber), and Shango (red and white). The mirrors used on the costume are said to represent the realm where deceased ancestors dwell.
Shakespeare Mas’ has also been compared to the Pierrot Grenade as it represents the buffoon figure of Commedia dell’Arte, an early form of professional theatre originating in Italy. This and other Eurocentric cultural expressions fused with West African cultural traditions to birth what is today, Shakespeare Mas.
The artform’s history has been transferred orally from one generation to the next. Finding information on the staging of the first portrayals of the Shakespeare Mas’ in Carriacou was largely unsuccessful, as many of the senior players have either died, migrated, or are unable to recall the early days of the mas portrayal. However, remnants of the history are still fresh in the minds of retired mas players as they recall reciting in school excerpts from Julius Caesar originally pulled from The Royal Reader literature used in schools during the colonial era. Recent masqueraders are opting more to recite ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ from Julius Caesar.
“The Carriacou Mas as Syncretic Artifact” authored by Joan M Fayer and Joan F McMurray documents that versions of the speech can be traced back to 1897.
The Shakespeare Mas character recalls the medieval European court jester, an entertainer with exceptional verbal or physical skills that transmitted stories with a political undertone, disguised as entertainment.
The movement of the mas players resembles that of stick fighting popularised in several Caribbean islands, and the whips signify the abusive weapons used to maintain control during slavery.
The anticipated performance drew long-standing retired masqueraders to the Top Hill area of Mt Royal where masqueraders gathered to get ready, and to wish each other good luck. As part of the morning ritual, they had a ceremonial sip of rum before the best masqueraders ventured out one by one towards the village crossroad where the showdown began.
At the crossroad near the Mt Royal La Resource community centre, masqueraders converged to recite meticulously learned verses from Julius Caesar as spectators gathered in a circle, the ‘cipher’ to cheer them on. Mas players orated their verses with other players responding ‘brave,’ which signalled to the other player to continue. In the call and response, one group calls upon or asks questions of the other through performance, and the other answers or responds through performance.
Glenroy Boatswain has been passionately playing Shakespeare Mas for over 8 years. “It wasn’t that easy to go out there and do it, but as I love it and I am among the famous mask men because I put my strength and effort into it. I was introduced to the mas about 8 years ago and I was able to memorise the Julius Caesar play in a couple of days and from using the book about a week. Everything just registers in my head and I never had to refer to the book again.”
While the masqueraders entertain the crowd, resident chef Carlyle Pascal along with a team of cooks prepared ‘saraca’ to feed the masqueraders after the performance. “We usually cook a saraca type food for the mas players, the rice, and peas and meat provision and once we are finished, we transport the food downtown by the market square where the food is shared which is customary. This is how Mt Royal keeps the community together.”
Even the retired masqueraders faced off with younger ones in friendly rivalry but despite the buzz created around the carnival season, the Shakespeare Mas’ has been overshadowed by other recently spawned entertainment, and it continues to see dwindling numbers of people interested in partaking in this cultural event.
Thomas Lawrence came into the art form around the 1950s. He is over 85 years old and has long retired from active participation. He later returned to Carriacou after having lived in the UK for a number of years. Lawrence shared some fond memories while recollecting on another dying cultural art form called the ‘canboulay’ which is a Sunday evening musical feast in many people’s homes in certain villages followed by stick fighting called kalinda.
“Something again we have to resurrect is the Canboulay. We had it this year where you beat the drums and have a conversation, and then we play stick fighting. Men used to get cut and have to be rushed to hospital but me and my mate you know what we use to do? We used to make signs, so if I go on one side, I hit him on the other side so we can’t get our head burst and our teeth break… but here in Mt Royal we the old men who die, who get old, but we still hanging on.”
The long-standing retired masquerader has attributed this decline partially to the migration of senior folks out of the island coupled with the lack of interest from young people to play the mas. Lawrence says it is not too late for retired players to return to the island and past on this rich legacy. “You see in our young days you see coming for Carnival we always had a Shakespeare book, but now the tradition is going down them young people now are not interested. They on their Facebook; but if we the older ones train them and teach them the right way we will get through.”
Returning national Patrick Andrew was delighted to see the tradition still lives on. “This is my third time visiting, and it is nice to see the mas revived to the point that it is now and it is also nice to see that the young people are involved.”
The Mt Royal Shakespeare Group organiser Jennifer Duncan played a proactive role in preserving the art form for future generations. “We started teaching the children Julius Caesar and we are hoping that they keep the tradition going because we realise over the years is that [interest] has dwindled tremendously.” She welcomed the number of children taking part that year and was happy to see that even girls have taken interest in what was traditionally a male-oriented masquerade Shakespeare but admitted, “it takes a little more effort because of the decline in interest.”
Duncan reminisced, “We used to have the mas going from Mt Royal to Six Roads, from Six Roads to Brunswick and into town. Now, what you find happening on a Tuesday morning, the mas will start at Mt Royal and come down to Hillsborough to meet with mas’ players from the Six Roads area.”
After the Mt Royal showdown, the mas players relocated to stage the ultimate showdown in Hillsborough where the Six Roads rivals signalled their presence by chanting “Tell them we coming down; who in the way, clear out the way.” In some instances, combatants have had to be separated when they become entangled in a heated brawl. “This year considerations were given for the safety of mas players, and once the ultimate showdown is over, and the winner declared, the players and the public retreat to the market square to feast on some delicious foods.”
At the end of the day despite facing ageing population and decline in interest of the younger generation, Shakespeare Mas’ continues to live on.
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