Urban Culture Renewed

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending “Summer Theater in the Parks.” This is a series of performances of two play by Tennessee Williams (“This Property is Condemned” & “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen”) staged in various public parks throughout New Providence, produced and directed by Leslie Vanderpool, who is probably best known as the founder and director of the Bahamas International Film Festival (BIFF).

This experience was well worth writing about for several reasons. People often lament the lack of cultural offerings in Nassau. In the words of one expat who came here on a work permit, moving to the Bahamas was a “lack-of-culture shock.” I believe his judgement was overhasty, and Mr. Expat most likely did not look around very much, though I will concede that we have also not succeeded in publicising cultural events effectively enough.*

Cassandra Miller and Lorenz Wright, cast of “This Property is Condemned” – Photo © by Stephen B. Aranha

The actors last night were young Bahamians for whom the participation in “Summer Theatre in the Parks” marked their stage debuts. They undoubtedly rose to the opportunity to showcase that we do indeed have talent to boast about in this country. This is one reason why, apart from the cultural enjoyment provided to the audience, this programme deserves recognition.

David Maycock, who played the male protagonist in “Talk to Me Like the Rain…” offered that acting “is another avenue kids can take. There are so many other things they can do out there that are negative. If we go out there and perform for them, it gives them a sense that there is more to life than sitting around on the blocks doing nothing.” This is an important reason why Vanderpool is correct in asserting that this programme fulfills some essential functions of what is known as Urban Renewal in present-day Bahamian discourse.

Even more, “Summer Theatre in the Parks” allows us to reclaim our city and its parks. There is something to be said for utterly unrepresentative impromptu polling, and when I asked some members of last night’s audience at Fort Montagu how many of them would usually come to the park after dark, the count was zero. Yet “Summer Theatre in the Parks” succeeded in drawing a good crowd. There were no more seats to be had. Some families were sitting on blankets on the grass, others were standing in the back.

After the each play, the audience has the opportunity to ask the actors and director questions – about the plays, their acting, theatre in general. Thus, “Summer Theatre in the Parks” already is more than your ordinary theatre experience where the curtain falls and the only ones you can discuss the play with are fellow audience members. However, Vanderpool takes the interactivity one step further. After the two plays were over, she encouraged audience volunteers to take to the stage and improvise scenes based on the plays they have just seen. This not only heightened the audience’s appreciation for the actors’ performances, but it had a very educational aspect to it, as the audience learned some basic things about acting, and volunteers, through their reactions during improvising, learned something about themselves.

Stacey Stubbs and David Maycock, cast of “Talk to Me Like The Rain and Let Me Listen” – Photo © by Stephen B. Aranha

The atmosphere at Fort Montagu was enthralling. The wind may have presented an acoustic challenge to the actors, but they coolly mastered it. The trees around the stage created a cozy setting, and the fort in the background served as a reminder how we as a society have been shaped by our history that far too few of us know enough about, ironically because I would argue that Fort Montagu, built in 1741/42, is one of those historic structures in Nassau that is revered for all the wrong reasons.

Historically speaking, Fort Montagu was the site of the 1776 Battle of Nassau when the Continental Marines, the predecessor of the United States Marine Corps conquered it during the American War of Independence. This marked the Marines’ first ever amphibious landing. Arguably, the military structure preserved there is more important to U.S. history than to Bahamian history.

However, for Nassauvians, the park and beach have become an important recreational area during the twentieth century, until more recently it became less used due to beach erosion, pollution and crime. The government’s (and Kerzner’s!) efforts in restoring the beach are important in reviving that part of our city, and “Summer Theatre in the Parks” is another key factor. For too long, Nassau has suffered from a vicious cycle of areas being abandoned or neglected for fear of crime, but it was the abandonment and neglect that created many of the problems. Urban Renewal programmes must encourage us to reclaim our city and its parks, to use them more, not less.

So please seize this opportunity and see how uplifting an experience it is when young Bahamian actors take to the stage. The remaining schedule for “Summer Theatre in the Parks” is as follows:

Montagu Park, East Bay Street
July 26, Thursday 8pm – 9pm

Fox Hill Park, Fox Hill
July 20, Friday 8pm – 9pm
July 27, Friday 8pm – 9pm

Mason’s Addition Park, Centreville
July 21, Saturday 3pm – 5pm
July 28, Saturday 3pm – 5pm

Sarah Ingraham Park, Centreville
July 22, Sunday 3pm – 5pm
July 29, Sunday 3pm – 5pm

* Thankfully, traditional media nowadays offers a wide variety in Nassau, but that also makes it easier to miss events that are promoted through one particular outlet, be it newspaper, television or radio. Social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, have their strengths, but also their weaknesses, and unless a critical number of users share an event, its reach remains limited. This effect is intensified by Facebook’s practice of filtering its users newsfeeds based on what Facebook’s algorithms think its users want to see.
      Given the small size of our island, one of the most powerful channels of advertising events is the completely old-fashioned, non-digital, pre-analogue word-of-mouth, which is great if you are already in the loop, know the right people and happen to bump into them at the right time. The Nassau grapevine is far from being ready for retirement. More predictable are online resources that do not rely on users checking their Facebook feed at the right time, but that allow users to actively seeking them out. Well established is the Nassau Weekly Newsletter, and my new favourite is Smith & Benjamin’s Bahamian Art & Culture Newsletter. Both offer e-mail subscriptions, too.

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