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Amid swirling words, moments of great beauty
It’s my first time to a 3Canal show, but not my first time intersecting with the trio of Wendell Manwarren, Roger Roberts and Stanton Kewley either as performers or subjects of photographic iconography.
Indeed, my intersections with Manwarren and Roberts go all the way back to the earliest incarnations of the Baggasse Company, where the two young men whet their teeth on formal theatre after emerging from the fluttering remnants of Trinidad Tent Theatre.
In 1997, together with founding member the late John Isaacs, the quartet distilled their love of Carnival, of large theatrical gesture and the bold drama of the J’Ouvert silhouette, limned dripping and raw against the rising sun of a Carnival Monday morning, into what still stands as the ultimate soundtrack for that event, the remarkable Blue.
It’s now 20 years later and that moment, which left core members of the group bloody on a Woodbrook street after a mysterious assault that Carnival, is being celebrated at Queen’s Hall with 3Canal’s latest instalment of its conceptual series of Carnival productions, Blue Forever, Forever Blue.
It’s a bit of a mixed bag, even for the 3Canal faithful.
In an effort to deliver an evening laden with gravitas, Manwarren, listed as both script writer and director, ended up overburdening the production with a seemingly unceasing torrent of portentous words, delivered in the main by a quartet of archetypes, The Seer (Elisha Bartels), The Prophet (Marvin Dowridge), The Enchantress (Cecelia Salazar) and The Mystic (Arnold Goindhan).
The four fall to the task of delivering a small book’s worth of words with enthusiasm and dramatic gesture, but it all ends up making little sense, offers no guiding clarity to the onstage action and is, ultimately, more than a little irritating.
Having collapsed as a theatrical Greek chorus, the archetypes ultimately fulfil the more useful job of bridging the pauses in action while the cast changes clothing and has makeup refreshed.
And it’s a big cast dancing behind the trio of singers, along with five backup singers and the commanding presence of Choral Director Glenda Collens, painfully underutilised as an Angel presence, given some bits of choral moaning to deliver and fabulous outfits to writhe about in on a two-foot high pedestal.
The young performers, some intimidatingly capable for their apparent age, deliver supporting choreography and a solid presence behind the lead performers, a constant reminder of the mob of the faithful that rally behind the band on Carnival Monday morning.
The show opens with a percussion driven overture, introducing the archetypes and generally offering up a merging of tone poetry, choreography and afro-military drumming.
It’s here that one of most compelling elements of the evening’s entertainment is introduced, the pulsing, fluttering animations of birds, angels and the Ouroboros by North Eleven which do more to underpin and explicate the evening’s activities than anything happening on stage.
All of which leads into the first number of the night, Look Meh#3, featuring daring leaps between risers by the cast.
That was quickly followed by the popular Good Morning and Rise, which rather diluted all the dramatic portents of the opening sequence and intimated that all of Glenda Collens’ impassioned wailing (and there was far too little Collens voice in the show) as the dramatic Angel figure was just set dressing.
And it’s around here that the challenge that 3Canal faced with the show becomes clear.
A 20th anniversary show demands some kind of retrospective viewpoints as well as dramatic futuring, but the selection of work offered for the show was culled almost entirely from the band’s considerable selection of soaringly aspirational works, songs full of rootsy imprecations to improve and grow.
Put enough of them together though and you have the kind of homilies your grandparents would pull you up to remind you about.
And really, there are a startling number of songs that explore the apparent rapture of starting a new day and basking in the benediction of the rising sun.
So there’s no Revolution, no Boom Up History, no Salt or Mud Madness, all songs that illustrate the gentle subversiveness that
characterises some of their best work.
Part of this may have to do with their Queen’s Hall audience, largely well-heeled and middle-class who tended to arrive at the show two to a vehicle and demonstrating no appetite for having their status challenged at $300 a head.
There’s also some flattening of things in the live performance. The Blue Angel Riddem segment features three songs by 3Canal apostles, Tea for Tears by Diedre Ryan, Higher by Jelaé Stroude-Mitchell and Leh We Go by Mogabi and Shermarke Thomas that are performed over the same beat, the one that powers the band’s Start Over, which concludes the medley.
Riding a riddem is an acknowledged system of promoting multiple versions of the same music bed, each remixed by a different soca artist, but this implementation did no favours to the young singer/songwriters showcased on opening night.
Also diminishing the performance on the night is perhaps the greatest shortcoming that the vocalists face, their inability to rise above shared chanting into more intricacies of harmony.
That’s largely because they don’t function on anywhere near the same level as singers, with Stanton best deployed to toasting, Roger Roberts most endearingly used when he can stretch his vocal range and Wendell Manwarren, the boldest and most riveting stage presence of the three, falling somewhere in-between.
Only on Never Give Up did Roberts show off some of his vocal skills, a welcome change from songs that were sometimes barked out in the excitement of the moment and almost uniformly delivered in a pitch and key that all of the vocalists can comfortably handle.
When the well-practised formula works; it can be devastating. Talk Yuh Talk, the most challenging song to make the retrospective cut, remains one of their most persuasively subversive songs, encouraging an audience to sing along with a still relevant observation of the national capacity to place conversation before action.
The show essentially closes with a revisited Blue, more practiced and mannered than the raw, percussion heavy song that broke down town in 1997.
3Canal has done other songs that explore the Carnival experience. Many centred on J’Ouvert, but none has captured the feel and resonance of this song, nor have any of their works done more to change the appreciation of this aspect of the festival.
Blue Forever, Forever Blue isn’t a perfect show and it’s a troublingly incomplete retrospective profile of the work that 3Canal has done, but it’s more exciting and ambitious than anything the NCC and its stakeholder cronies will stage this year.
It would be churlish not to note the considerable achievement of Roberts, Kewley and Manwarren, who rode a remarkable beginning, survived the closure of their record label and proceeded to hack out their own path in the unforgiving wilds of Carnival year by year over the last two decades.
It’s a rare act of courage, dedication and entrepreneurship in a festival that takes an unnatural pride in feeding at the Government trough and there’s no underestimating the inspiration that their sacrifice and work ethic has offered to another generation of young artists and performers.
That they so generously make space for those young people year after year in their Carnival show is an example that shouldn’t be missed.
• Blue Forever, Forever Blue finishes tonight at Queen's Hall.
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