July 12, 2000
By Terry Joseph

DAME LORRAINE, that saucy traditional carnival character, may have to embark upon intense weight-loss and behaviour-modification programmes, before her likeness is considered palatable enough for public display at the Carnival Institute. That conclusion came easily, after reading last Wednesday's commentary by the institute's brand new director, Dr Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool, headlined Cursing actors demean Art.

In the piece, Chalkie paraded the moral high ground with bible-thumping zeal, in response to an Express editorial (June 28) that bravely suggested a review of the 1935 Theatres and Dance Halls Act, to allow actors the use of free speech on stage. Although it is a subject with which I previously treated, Chalkie's intervention demands a return to the debate, given his role in our artistic development.

As Director of the Institute, Chalkie's opinion will be crucial to the fashioning of policy on what is Carnival Art. And if we are to judge by his thoughts on what should be excluded from theatre at large; then we have been afforded more than a frightening clue as to what will not qualify for inclusion at his museum.

The core point of the editorial with which he took issue was the use of profanity in one short sequence of the play De Vices. As it happened, the offending words were clipped after the opening night performance and since Chalkie definitely was not at the Central Bank Auditorium for the premiere, he must have constructed his entire position on no firmer a foundation than mere hearsay.

Even more disquieting is his admission that he really wants art to imitate only the beautiful things in life; avoiding realities like young men cursing on a street corner. "Actors trying to imitate cursing on the streets," he says, "do nothing to stop cursing and foul language in the society;" presuming perhaps that the role of a good actor includes components of law enforcement.

By extension, his theory implies that artists should only reflect pleasant images, requiring calypsonians to sing only about the good things governments do, rather than become masters of protest or political commentators. Ironically, he maintains in the same article that he is not one for censorship of the arts.

In support of his perilous position, he invokes Plato's doctrine that art imitates life. Chalkie however tempers the tenet with his own moral code, steering clear of any concession that the very philosopher upon whom he is relying is widely held culpable for formulating the first known censorship protocol, a fact that many scholars say helped drive his teacher, Socrates, to suicide.

His reference to the English poet Shelley is equally misplaced since, here he was highly recommending to the moral majority, an "exemplar" whose standards of public conduct were frequently brought into question; even as he penned the most tender of verses.

And when he feels the argument collapsing, Chalkie snatches wildly at his library, plucking a nebulous comment from Cuban writer Jose Marti, patently odd references to Leroy Clarke's El Tucuche and even drags the Good Book into the conspiracy, saying that "All art must reflect the glory of the Creator." Lord help the Beelzeebub costume that felt it would be displayed at his morally correct institute.

From a position exclusively influenced by principles alien to the theatre, Chalkie sees the artist as "proclaimers of new values", a role normally reserved for totalitarian governments and fundamentalist religious crusades. He burdens actors with several other responsibilities for which they are equally unprepared and makes sweeping generalisations about issues as far afield as genetics.

In that particular flight of recklessness, he even managed to say: "unmarried virgins were not born that way." Something is very wrong with the concept of a Director of the Carnival Institute who feels the need to tell performers what kind of art they must produce, or attempts to redefine their roles by ascribing senior levels of social responsibility to their characterisations.

While it may be Chalkie's function to identify pieces for record or display, the artist must be afforded the latitude of poetic licence which, if blatantly exceeded, will always be dealt with by audiences. He should therefore fear no art.

We should not be left to wonder if he will apply the same moral judgements to calypso or the theatre that is Carnival, affecting the availability of work from icons like The Roaring Lion, whose "Netty, Netty" or "Sally Water" could be considered more than mildly suggestive.

And in such circumstances, if Dame Lorraine manages to scrape in on the basis of historical value, will her title be excluded because it sounds like a swear word?

Terry-J at I-Level