By Paula Lindo (Originally published to the T&T Guardian 13/03/ 2016)
It’s startling to hear Dr. Lester Efebo Wilkinson insist that he came to theatre late in life. After all, he is someone whose name has become synonymous with the revolution of theatre in T&T.
Speaking at the Monday Night Theatre Forum at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW) on February 29, Wilkinson said he was involved in the Arts in one way or another since age two, playing piano and guitar, reciting poetry, drawing, mas-making, and joining and forming pan sides in high school. He helped to form the Happy Heart Pelicans Sports and Cultural Club and was part of the award-winning Mausica Teachers’ College Choir.
After leaving school, Wilkinson talk in Mayaro where he became “acutely aware of poverty and the plight of many citizens who seemed to have no one to talk for them. It really awakened my social conscience and left me in a permanently troubled state.”
This awakening led to his involvement in several movements and his imprisonment for six months on Nelson Island after being arrested during the 1970 State of Emergency during the Black Power Revolution. Wilkinson said his poetry became more revolutionary during this time.
Wilkinson entered the world of theatre as a result of an encounter with TTW founder Derek Walcott. During a visit to Walcott’s house in 1974, Wilkinson, who described himself as a “young Turk with no cover for my mouth,” told Walcott that TTW wasn’t the big deal it was made out to be. Walcott responded that if and when Wilkinson could write a one-act play, he would put it on with the TTW.
The following year, the National Cultural Council offered a $1,000 award for a play and Wilkinson wrote “To Confirm St. Peter,” which won the competition.
As a result, Wilkinson met theatre critic Kenneth Ramchand and theatre historian Errol Hill, which changed his life.
“I’ve had these moments that at the time [had] absolutely no significance, but when I look back at them now, I can see them as major life-changing experiences, like the encounters with Walcott and Hill.”
Wilkinson said he has lived his theatrical life according to Hill’s tenets on T&T folk and expanded on some of them. He said his type of theatre sprung up in spite of Best Village.
“I make the distinction between Best Village and Best Village Theatre, which is theatre following in the mode of Errol Hill’s take on the folk, the ways in which the folk informs theatre and the way theatre is used to reveal the folk to a people. We are trying to find a way to have our folk taught to us through a theatre that we understand and until we come to terms with that, we come to terms with nothing.”
He was approached in 1979 to help Mausica Village get to Best Village. Wilkinson wrote the now classic “Bitter Cassava” and the troupe worked every day for three years. Wilkinson said the preliminaries and semi-finals were disastrous, because the judges could not understand the concept of a song or a dance advancing a plot.
“When the troupe hit the Savannah stage for the finals, they nailed it and the audience erupted. I knew we had begun to talk a different kind of theatre.” However, the play was awarded second place, and the following year’s offering, “Same Khaki Pants” placed ninth.
Wilkinson said he finds it passing strange that T&T theatre is not appreciated by the same people who appreciate their own dance, music and food.
“It has to start in schools. I don’t mean only African folk, but all the types we have in T&T, like RamLeela and Columbus Day celebrations in Moruga, that have become uniquely ours. We need to have a healthy respect of the folk we have! I’m sick and tired of seeing people singing folk songs as an afterthought, and worse yet when you come to read a play in the folk or that’s locally crafted, you don’t bring the kind of respect and regard you need to bring to it!”
Wilkinson said some of his success as a director comes from getting his students to see themselves.
“It has to do with seeing the person, and wanting the person to be the best that they can be. All real development comes from an inner understanding of who you are and what you are about. Unless you can get the person to see themselves and begin to mark those points at which growth needs to take place and let them do it themselves, there’s no growth taking place.”
He also warned directors that they cannot begin to help the actor to grow if they were trying to impress the person with their knowledge and how much they could do for them.
Wilkinson studied from 1979 to 1982 at CUNY Brooklyn College where he did a double major in Theatre Arts, as well as Radio and Television production, “because I had to get the information, knowledge and skills to come back and do it.”
In addition to his work in the theatre, Wilkinson has been Director of Culture, Permanent Secretary of different Ministries, Head of the T&T Foreign Service and Ambassador to Cuba, among many other accomplishments.
The next installment of the Monday Night Theatre Forum on March 14 will feature actor, director and playwright Rhoma Spencer. Admission: FREE. Interested persons can find the event on Facebook at The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Monday Night Forum is a biweekly forum hosted by Tony Hall and Raymond Choo Kong. It is presented by Playwrights Workshop Trinbago and Raymond Choo Kong Productions in association with Trinidad Theatre Workshop and The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network.