In a diverse undertaking full of world premieres and international visitors, the 2013 Dream Up Festival, presented by Theater for the New City, will only feature one dedicated musical: “Flambeaux: A Caribbean Musical.” With a book by Nandi Keyi, who collaborated with directors Roderick Warner and Lawrence Floyd on lyrics, and music by Jeff Bolding, “Flambeaux” explores colonialism and the question of home in 19th Century Trinidad, then a territory in British possession.
“Flambeaux” tells the stories of the residents of a tenement yard in early Port-of-Spain, the largest city in Trinidad. After the mysterious death of Sello, a popular stick-figher, a brawl breaks out, causing the colonial authorities to harshly punish all involved—those whom they see as a base class. The musical presents people of different races and social classes struggling for power and a sense of belonging in the complex melange that is Caribbean society.
Though the second portion of the title is rather self-explanatory, you may be wondering what exactly the term “flambeaux” means. According to Keyi, “Flambeau(x) is a makeshift lamp, created by placing a piece of cloth in a bottle with kerosene, which creates an unwieldy flame. Caribbean people used the flambeaux to see in the dark before lamps, and of course, electricity.” But beyond the literal, “Flambeaux has a… place in the annals of Trinidad & Tobago history, as the Africans took to the streets with lit flambeaux to commemorate the Emancipation Bill, which came into effect on August 1, 1833 freeing them from enslavement.” Although slavery ended then, colonialism and injustice in Trinidad did not. In fact, the country only became independent in 1962, becoming a republic in 1976.
Much like the island nation in which it is set, “Flambeaux” did not develop quickly, or in one swift step. Keyi wrote the work’s forerunner, “Light the Flambeaux” while living in Canada in the 1990s. Even then, she knew that “there were still layers – particularly the wants and needs of this community – that needed to be developed.” However, other endeavors took precedence. Keyi contends that “I worked on the play very, very, sporadically over the years … actually decades. Then last year, I met two amazing artists, our producer Lawrence Floyd and director Roderick Warner, who demanded, inspired and supported an exploration into the depths of this world.”
Though it is not Keyi’s first work centered around Caribbean characters (she wrote a novel entitled “The True Nanny Diaries” about female domestic workers here in New York City), it is her first play with entirely original music. She states, “I think it would be untruthful to tell a story set in a barrack or tenement yard in early Port-of-Spain, Trinidad without music.” Music serves as a cultural symbol, and as a reminder of the resilience of the Trinidadian people. She explains, “Whether it is music story of the highly-spiritual “Shango Baptist,” or the Jab Molassi – music coaxed from old British biscuit tins – or a half-full glass bottle and a spoon, the voices of washerwomen, the ribald voice of the chantwelle (early calypso singer). Music is everywhere; it rises, and rises in spite of the conditions on the ground.”
In order to create the music for the show, Floyd worked with Jeff Bolding, a two-time AUDELCO award winner and former member of the music ministry at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Though he has made his name in composing Gospel music, Keyi contends that “The spiritual songs in ‘Flambeaux’ are, of course, coming from a Trinidad aesthetic but [like] the Negro Spirituals of America [they come from] African roots – the black keys on the Piano – so Jeff connects.” In any case, “working with [Bolding] is fantastic; he listens to the traditional old-style Trinidad melodies and applies structure, range and polish. He may not know what it is, but he has good instinct on what it is should sound like, and that’s what he delivers.”
Keyi and her collaborators did not choose to set their story in colonial Trinidad without reason. Keyi, director Roderick Warner and costume designer Martin Scott-Pascall are all of Trinidadian descent. According to Keyi, “I am tied to Trinidad and Tobago, because my parents were born there; their forebears were kidnapped and dropped in the Caribbean during enslavement. I was born in England because my parents left colonial Trinidad & Tobago to seek ‘betterment’ in England.” Though she spent the first five years of her life in England, she spent most of her formative years, from the ages of five to 16, in a small town in Trinidad. Though “home life was brutal” in Trinidad, “the upside is that I was imbued with this amazing connection to a culture that fits me, despite my British birth. The ten years I spent in Trinidad & Tobago [influence] everything I do.”
That question of identity has been very important to Keyi in a number of ways. Nandi is not her given name, rather, “Nandi replaced a pretty, Eurocentric name I was given by my parents. Nandi was chosen by me. It reflects how strongly I feel about my African-self. Keyi is my name by marriage; it reflects the like-minded views of my husband who legally replaced all his names with African names.” As she reminds us with this choice, as well as in the themes of “Flambeaux,” “Names are important. When Africans lost our names through enslavement, we lost a vast part of our identity. My name reminds me that the reclamation is part of my work.”
If you do not want your Caribbean experience to end after viewing “Flambeaux,” then Keyi recommends that you “take the #4 train to the end of the line; walk down Utica Avenue, across Church Avenue. Enjoy how de people walk as if dey carry music in their waists. Experience a steel band side during practice, purchase a corn from the back of a car truck, some nuts [from a] man on a bicycle; it is all part of the experience.”
Join us at the 2013 Dream Up Festival to see “Flambeaux: A Caribbean Musical” on 8/18 (8 pm), 8/20 (6:30 pm), 8/22 (6:30 pm), 8/24 (5 pm), 8/28 (6:30 pm) in the Johnson Theater at Theater for the New City. The show runs 120 minutes, and tickets cost $18. For tickets and more information call (212) 254-1109 or go to: www.theaterforthenewcity.net.
By William Gutierrez