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Minsh stirs the pot again

Sunday, February 23, 2014
Miss Miles—The Woman of the World. Image designed by Peter Minshall.

From now until Carnival, Barbadian-born, New Jersey-resident writer Austin Fido will write a series of articles attempting to get behind the mas—from concept to design to production and performance.


“The phone is a devilish instrument. You catch me at a time when my head is hot with other matters,” says Peter Minshall, the masman to whom the words “legendary,” famed” and “pioneering” are irrevocably bonded. He is all those things, but right now, on the second Monday before Carnival, he is working. So too is Tony Hall, the playwright, director and lecturer. “I’m just running out. There are so many issues,” Hall says.  “I’d love to talk… but not now,” says Cecilia Salazar, the actress, caught readying herself for a rehearsal with 3Canal. Fashion designer Meiling also politely declines an interview request. It is not unusual for some of the most celebrated names in the creative arts to be busy creating. With the Carnival season closing in on its epic finale, it is time to do, not say. What is less usual is these particular names are working on the same thing. On February 18, registration opened for Miss Miles, a band that will take to the road on the afternoon of Carnival Monday. The mas is an extension of Hall’s acclaimed play Miss Miles—The Woman of the World, which premiered at the Little Carib Theatre in 2011. Alongside Hall is Salazar, co-producer and queen of the band, reprising her role as Gene Miles, a woman to whom history has also welded words: “outspoken,” “whistle-blower,” “tragic.” As the day winds down, the principals behind Miss Miles share their vision of the band, its purpose, and the woman who is its inspiration. 


Our Joan of Arc
“She is our Joan of Arc,” says Minshall. “She stood up to the powers that be and was punished for it. She died for her courage.” For Minshall, recalling his schooldays “in the era of Gene Miles,” she was “an extraordinary, legendary, mythical character.” For Hall, she was a defining figure of her day: “In the 50s, growing up in Trinidad, there were three personalities I thought were very prominent. One was Eric Williams, one was Sparrow and one was Gene Miles.” He remembers an ever-present figure, appearing on television, in fashion shows, and “in the ghetto areas…the shanty towns.” In 1965, she exposed corruption within the government—the distribution of lucrative gas station licences for personal and political gain rather than commercial and social benefit. In so doing, she challenged a newly independent nation to look critically at itself. It chose to look away. She died marginalised, diminished and harassed, less than a decade after forcing the Gas Station Racket inquiry.

Newspaper clippings in the national archive reveal a persistent ambivalence toward her. Front-page articles of the day are confused as to whether the event in question is a major challenge to the government’s integrity or a parade of 60s chic: “Miss Miles, dressed in an eye-catching black and white op-art outfit with bullseye motif, told the Commissioner that it was her father who exposed the Caura Dam racket and that “no kind of money can buy me.” (Trinidad Guardian, July 22, 1966.) Such breathless attention to her wardrobe apparently prevented any consensus on more fundamental aspects of journalism, such as the spelling of her name: she is “Gene” in one journal, “Jean” in the next. Salazar remembers first reading about Miles as an adult. “Why didn’t I know this? Why wasn’t I taught this in history? If she was American, she would have movies made about her ten times over.”


Mas on corruption
Miss Miles was Trinidadian. There is no movie about her. Instead, she is getting something better: a mas, one in which everyone will play her, as she herself did. “The mas that she played, she called The Woman of the World,” says Hall. “She had created a persona for herself that was big, and as important and impactful on the collective imagination to be a masquerade.” She attracted several imitators, playing her mas, using her name as a public challenge to corruption. Hall and Salazar’s vision for 2014 is for a legion of Miss Mileses on the road, every member, woman or man, in the same costume, issuing a fresh challenge. Not just a finger-pointing at others, but a catharsis for the self. “Find the Gene Miles in you, and you will be able to deal with your corrupted self,” says Hall. They have already elevated her legacy with their work on the stage. The band, be it comprised of one or 1,000, raises it further onto the shoulders of an elite group of masmakers: 3Canal will provide and curate the soundtrack; Meiling is supervising production; and Minshall the designer is back.

“It is clear that I am putting my hand into the pot of paint and stirring it,” Minshall, 72, says, before paraphrasing the headlines that greeted the news of his latest project, “Minshall has returned to the mas.” He is not ready to give up all his plans: “If I could tell you what it would be like, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of doing it.” But he knows what he wants. The band will be small, in effect a section, but “in its simplicity and tailored exactness, by its economy, it will say something very big,while the big bands of feathers and beads say very little.” And he knows what Miss Miles wants.  In the same way an actor channels a character, so too must a designer.  “‘Mr Minshall, if I am coming back into Carnival, I do not want to wear any old black dress. Make me sexy,’” he says, describing his initial creative exchanges with the “essence of Miss Miles.” Her imperative must be combined with the practical dictates of purpose: an icon for a new aesthetic of protest, one Minshall intends to “touch a nerve of conscience.” On which note, he returns to work.


For info and registration, visit 33 Murray Street, Woodbrook, daily from 5­­–10 pm, call 681-7475, or visit the band’s Facebook page.


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