INTERVIEW: Michael Fontenelle writer of “An Kwi Douvan Jou”

The following is an interview I conducted during late March via email with Michael Fontenelle(MF) the author of the unpublished play “An Kwi Douvan Jou” which was directed by Alan Weekes. The play ran from near the end of January 2012 and throughout March. According to Executive Director of the Folk Research Centre Dr. Kentry Jn Pierre, this being an original St. Lucian play scripted almost exclusively in Kwéyòl makes it a first for St. Lucian theatre. As he points out, no less than Mr. Allan Weekes has translated a number of plays into Kwéyòl and persons would be familiar with the more common improvised unscripted work in  Kwéyòl such as by groups like Che Campeche.

 In this interview Mr. Fontenelle shares on the  potential of the Kwéyòl language, his experience of putting on the play,  his own background in theatre and his relationship to the issues which the play engages. Parentheses are mine. They are inserted for clarification, to provide additional information or to guide the reader. In the end I include two links where Dr. Dianne Diakite(of Emory University) discusses Obeah its origins, nature and how it developed its negative connotations. Do enjoy.

Iandiyanola : First let me express my appreciation to you for taking the time out to do this interview. As an introduction could you give a brief background to your involvement in theatre?

MF: I started at the SDA Academy, under one of my lit teachers Cyrus Reynolds; we studied Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Oliver Twist, and the Scarlet Pimpernel with Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds used a system of Immersion (He didn’t call it immersion) in which the class was divided into three or four companies and each company produced a dramatic reading of a scene or act, his system involved getting the definition and understanding the context of each word you spoke or was spoken to you, so that the intent of the speaker become more than the words spoken. After SDA I joined Unity Theatre 1984-89, Gandolph St. Clair who had just returned from studying in Jamaica introduced us to the concept of “Popular Theatre” – creating plays that dealt with current social issues and which tried to empower the community to act, from improvisation. We used the concept extensively, responding to issues like the spate of gramoxone involved suicide in the mid 1980s, teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, the discovery of aids, the South African question, the betrayal of Haiti, and the US invasion of Grenada. We also read plays by other writers. In 1985 we won the M&C Fine Arts Award for drama with a portrayal of Stanley French‘s “The Rape of Fair Helen”  We got involved in an FRC project “Tèyat Pèp-la” that involved using traditional forms to create popular theatre pieces.

We lost our rehearsal space, The Upton Girls Centre in 1989 and the group disintegrated. I formed “MicKen Theatre Company” with Kentry Jn Pierre and we staged one play at the Light House Theatre “The Prayer meeting” (Ben Caldwell) in 1991. I participated in an OAS theatre arts workshop organized by the then Director of Culture Jacques Compton. At the end of the workshop Jacques created National Repertory Company(NRC). I directed two plays with the NRC: “Letter from Leonora“(Erich Roach) and “The Sea at Dauphin“(Derek Walcott). “Letter from Leonora” was selected as a presentation to the Caricom Heads of Government of 1991. Jacques promised that he would get government to fund the group. The minister did not agree and the group fell apart. Kentry and I with Milton Branford Jr. formed Malfinis Theatre Company. Malfinis partnered with RARE Conservation Society and Population International to produce the Radio Drama “Apwé Plézi”. We fell out in 1996 and Kentry and I left Malfinis. I worked with Light House under Julia Bird for about 18 months* and then joined Gemstones a new company created by Hayden Forde. Since 1991 I have been involved with Take Over Tent(Calypso) and have been creating dramatic interpretations for calypsos that got to the final.

Acting, I played Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet”(W. Shakespeare) directed by Julia Bird, the Pastor in “Prayer Meeting”(Ben Caldwell)” Directed by Kentry Jn. Pierre; The Gate Keeper in “Julius Caesar”(W. Shakespear) directed By Julia Bird. These are my more notable roles. Gave up the stage in 1991 and went backstage.

Iandiyanola: “An Kwi douvan jou” deals with, among other things, the psychic and social conflict between two heritages (Christian European and Non-Christian African tradition) which are part of St. Lucian and Caribbean reality. What led you to engage this issue? Is it still relevant to discuss these issues today? For instance, we know that Stanley French(1937-2010) dealt with this decades ago in “The Light in the Dark” and Travis Weekes in “The Curse at Dauphin” some months ago.

MF: In the mid 1990s FRC(Folk Reseach Centre) hosted a series of lectures by Father Patrick Anthony dealing with evidence of (the) influence of Catholicism in the work of Derek Walcott and Wilson Harris(Guyanese Writer). This was followed by a series of workshops with Ellen Camps and Henjk Jon of Suriname.

The FRC workshops also included Kennedy “Boots” Samuel, Frank Norville and the leader of the Piaye dancers, i think his name was or is Dodo(Doudou”).

These two things exposed (perhaps not intentionally) a kind of religious tyranny that existed in the Caribbean up till the early seventies and the rise of the black power movement and Rastafarian movement; so in a sense that’s where the initial spark came from. Then between 2008 and 2010, working with the Dennery Development Foundation and the Montego Bay Solo group I rediscovered the strong hold the traditional non-Christian beliefs still have in these rural communities. These beliefs are held side by side with belief in Christian faith and for the believer there is no distinction between the two no less and greater, they have different uses, that’s all. But they enjoy an equal place in the power and impact they have on daily lives of the people.

Iandiyanola: Should the title of your play be read literally or are there other reasons for you selecting this title?

MF: When I started the script, it had the English title “A Siren before dawn”. This was intended to play on the idea from Greeks of the siren being the nymphs that were cursed by Demeter for not intervening in the abduction of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone when she was kidnapped by Hades.  According to the legend the sirens lured men to their doom with the beautiful voices and in the curse of Odysseus, the reasoning in their songs. I deliberately made Madou’s songs discordant and I gave Younifa’s arguments some pedestrian prosaic appeal so as to force the audience to ask which one is really the siren if they bothered to make that link.

But the play kept screaming at me and I amended the title to include the kwèyól interpretation “an kwi douvan jou”

I know that the word kwi is also applied to a calabash cleaned of its innards to make it useful as a water pot or eating utensil. It is also used by some African tribes to describe a westernized/Christianized African. This makes it interesting but this was not in my head when the title was amended.

 

Iandiyanola: Did you make any noteworthy discoveries while researching for this play?

MF: (i.)Kwèyól is a language rich with proverbs, similes and metaphors. (ii). That education imprisons. I mentioned earlier the tyranny of religion over the lives of rural folk and that fact although not at the forefront of their minds is manifested in absent minded actions – throwing some drink on the ground before you drink- the pervasiveness of these rituals. Yes that was a revelation for me.

Iandiyanola: Another notable aspect of your play is the predominant use of Kwèyól throughout the script. Apart from the appropriateness to the characters and setting, are there other reasons you chose to make such extensive use of the language? It could have been written entirely in English as has been done with other plays in similar settings and with similar character types.

MF: I conceptualized and I began writing the play in English, but as I continued to write I realized that to capture the spirit of the characters, I had to either write in kwèyól or distort the English to get effect. That would be a disservice to both languages.  The simple concept of, “soukou!” Or a Gadè(seer) and Gajé(a shapeshifter) being embodied in the same person seemed difficult to portray in English text. Secondly the music of kwèyól, the rhythm and rhyme of the dialogue just sounded better in kwèyól.

 

Iandiyanola: Some have charged the limited capacity of Kwèyól to support serious intellectual or philosophical discourse. What was your experience in using the language where this is concerned? What is your perpective on this view of the language?

MF: People live with this language. They conduct their entire life business with it. For most of us it requires some level of immersion to appreciate the depth, the vim and vigor of the language.  Most of the significant people in our society do not have a sufficient grasp of the language to use it in fine arts and intellectual discourse. And then let’s remember the language, like culture, is an evolving thing.

Iandiyanola: In your play you provided a range of relationships to the two traditions. Madou (entrenched in the African tradition) and the priest as well as Younifa on the other side (firmly committed to the European Christian tradition) represent perhaps polar opposites. Could you elaborate then, on what you think this reveals about our society’s navigation of its colonial past and the residual contradications this entails.

MF: Younifa has more faith in the African tradition than she lets on. Even after all the education she is convinced that Madou can steal her father’s soul; that the relationship between Madou and her father was anchored by something other than love. So the power of social and cultural education is great. We submit to the legal and economic power of the church but our spirit is torn between what we are taught and some imbedded information we cannot always decipher. Then again (the) lure of modernization and globalization does not allow us to even contemplate the possibility of being different.

Iandiyanola: What challenges did you face in putting on this play?

MF: First let me acknowledge the generosity of Mr. Allan Weekes, Lyndell Gordon and Marcian Jn. Pierre. Mr. Gordon in particular was interested in making this happen, offering ideas and resources to the effort. He does not speak kwèyól.

For challenges; finding rehearsal space was a challenge. The cast did not read kwèyól when we started and some did not speak it (except of course for the expletives) the discipline required to make theatre happen is always a challenge. Getting the professional attitude from the professional people –lights, music, etc. is a challenge in St. Lucia.

Iandiyanola: What are your views generally about the difficulties facing theatre in St. Lucia?

MF: Politicians and policy makers see theatre as a recreational endeavor and treat it as such. “It is something we do on the side to amuse ourselves.” The entire society is blind to the subversive impact of other forms of recreation and the need to create a space that will allow the society to vent without abusing substances or each other.  Theatre in St. Lucia is like a two legged stool. We have interest and human capacity but no capital to make it happen.  Theatre is a recreational endeavor, tourism is recreational. Why can’t we marry the two. Sometimes it seems that only carnival is culture worthy of investment.  And that for everything else the official policy is that good must come out of poverty. So no resources are earmarked for its holistic development.

 

Iandiyanola: Although you did not direct the play, would you be able to comment on the process of casting and working with actors of different levels of experience, Kweyol proficiency etc?

MF: We did not have auditions. We identified persons and invited them to read. But this was successful so we began working with those who showed interest. The (in)ability to read and speak kwèyól was a challenge for most people. But we workshoped extensively to help overcome it. Even now there is still work to be done on the tone and inflections. This took a serious toll on the patience of the more proficient cast members and the vast experience of Mr. Weekes was of immense value there.

Iandiyanola: On a slightly different note; during the seventies, you and others operated a Frontline bookstore, one known for stocking literature on African history and other marginalised perspectives. To what extent was this project successful in terms of public response?

MF: Frontline Bookstore operated from June 1987 to February 1992. It was an attempt to create an artist cooperative. The project failed. The market just was not there. And we did not have the resources to stick it out. We changed shop attendants simply to reduce operating cost. Eventually we closed.

The range of material available in St. Lucia is better now than it was back then. I think our experiment had a positive impact on the other book sellers. But the overall range is still very limited.

Iandiyanola: Do you think presently that adequate material from these diverse perspectives are available in our bookstores and other media today to examine issues such as those raised in your play in an informed manner?

MF: Unfortunately, no. But book selling like creating theatre boils down at the end to income versus expenses. Why stock it if it will not sell?

Brief Talk on Obeah

Professor Dianne Diakite of Emory University discusses the history and power of Obeah and it’s African origins.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQnMa2R-AwI _Obeah Part 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Lz2d-4VrB0&feature=relmfu – Obeah Part 2

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~ by iandiyanola on April 5, 2012.

2 Responses to “INTERVIEW: Michael Fontenelle writer of “An Kwi Douvan Jou””

  1. Under the dominant Orthodox Christian prejudice of our society here in St. Lucia most African spiritual traditions were bunched up under “Voodoo”(Vodou) and Obeah both reduced to manipulation of spiritual forces for material ends or “witchcraft”/”magic”. As such, the character Madou would be looked at through this bias as an Obeah woman(with the connotation above) as opposed to a woman carrying on a spiritual tradition. With more research being done to put these traditions (whether fragmented, distorted, transformed or evolved) into context with other better retained systems or with their origins in Africa it is possible now to make sense of them. For instance the word Gadè which is understood as one who has a more refined “sight” (seer) according to the Encyclopedia of African and African-American religions is/was also understood in some of the French-colonized Caribbean as an aspect of the self/person which has deeper insight(termed in full,Gadèzafè) . Similarly a study of the Vodou tradition such as that of Maya Deren’s “Divine Horsemen” points out the difference between Vodou the spiritual tradition and the what one would term magic (as in Gajé etc) which is the use of the spiritual/non-material forces for some cause other than spiritual development or some individual concern which need not be malicious. This is the context in which I shared the above links.

  2. Very interesting insights into a subject which is seldom discussed at this level.

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