One of the simple joys of my career is that, because I work with other freelance literary creators, we get to be novel in the ways we approach the same projects we’ve been engaged in for most of our work. As a teaching artist with The 2 Cents Movement, that means that our yearly nationwide secondary school tours get to be wildly varied projects, from the comical and narratively disjointed to the tragic and emotionally intense.
It also means that, even when someone’s come to us to say, “We’d like you to solve this problem for us,” we’re trusted to find those solutions in our own ways. So when the Ministry of Community Development, Culture, and The Arts came to 2 Cents asking for us to continue our work on the National Patriotism Month tour they’ve usually performed, we were more than eager to take them up on the project, but were even more eager to try something new.
National Patriotism Month is a fairly recent observance in Trinidad and Tobago, but to me it serves a radically necessary social purpose. Between the dates of Independence Day and Republic Day, the Ministry aims to promote national cultural and heritage milestones to the public in the hope of raising national morale and reinforcing a national commitment to our twin-island home. Its festivities most often include using the performing arts to remind us of our greatest historical moments and their importance, and how they not only formed the definition of our national identity but, in more ways than many of us know, shaped international history or served as some of its most radical unsung moments.
The assumptions people typically make of the past are really stiff and unappetizing. No matter what radical things you may know about in your national history, the act of revisiting it is often done dully and without much engagement. Imagine someone performing a poem about the fact that an old man you don’t know who has long since been dead did a cool thing that doesn’t immediately impact your life. Imagine being asked, being begged, to care about this thing so external to your experience that you can barely be inspired to connect long enough to remember the person’s name at all.
The team lead for this year’s patriotism tour, Arielle John, shared this feeling about that quandary. So did 2 Cents Artistic Director Derron Sandy, who has been doing the same tour as far back as 2016, and hoped for a way to help students attach even more eagerly to our historical narratives. How could we bridge both gaps—how to deliver this year’s theme of ‘Legacy Is Me’ in a way that inspires young people to value their own commitment to nation-building, and make these histories more engaging for young people—in one short, concise tour?
Being the one speculative poet on the team, I pitched the first thing that immediately came to mind:
what if… time travel?
Time travel narratives may seem like the bread and butter of science fiction —a dime a dozen, almost as populous in the genre as rockets and ray guns—but they’re that way for a reason. Making time a playground is a very good, if often cliché, way to ask people to embody history. When done right, it gives the audience an opportunity to behold legacy live, to feel as if they have been drawn into it rather than simply being told.
I thought it was also pretty useful to try to frame history in terms that we knew, and one of those easiest terms is disillusionment. Even teenagers often feel hopeless at the state of the country, often over the same issues as their parents and teachers. The performance team was already really interested in telling stories that show that while the struggles of everyday developing society persist and will perhaps continue to, we have also consistently been a nation of resistance and confrontation of our most harrowing social issues, and can tap into that strength again whenever we want, even and especially in our youth.
The team took the idea and ran with it immediately. The other performers each had reams of new ideas they wanted to integrate into the performance of it. One very early performance idea came from Arielle and Derron very early in the process: that of not merely traveling through time, but experiencing a kind of embodiment, being spoken through (and to) by the past rather than simply appearing there. That not only added a new dimension to the performance of it, but remarkably made some of our worries about how to stage it all much more manageable. We also knew that part of our goal was to show young audiences how their own legacy can be shaped by adopting the mindsets of our historical greats, but didn’t want to simply say ‘you can do cool things like this person did!’, because that doesn’t actually show anyone anything.
The resulting show is a play about Philip, a young man stumbling through his high school life by seeking approval from his schoolmates, even at the cost of his own original thoughts. Philip gets sent to detention, meeting a ragtag group of delinquents and roughnecks who each insist that being punished for their specific misdeeds isn’t an attempt to teach them something, but proof that the system doesn’t care about them and Trinidad and Tobago’s future has been lost to inequality, violence, and a lack of opportunities. Inside, they also meet Tristan, a ‘good one’ (played by yours truly, obviously), who surprises them with news so silly they refuse to believe it: a lunchkit in the corner of the detention room is actually a time machine, and they’re actually in detention to learn how to shape their own legacies by traveling back to meet some of Trinbago’s historical legends and learning how and why they became who we know them as today.
With that framework in place, each poet set out to research and write on their own historical figure, as well as write original character sketches for their detention counterparts. The diversity of narratives that came from the other writers fit just right with the messages that we wanted audiences to attach to. Nala, for instance, portrayed by Deneka Thomas (who wrote her own account of the tour here), is a forceful, violent girl who thinks the way to end poverty and hunger is to fight well-off students for their snacks, but when she has a chance encounter with social worker Audrey Jeffers, she shifts her praxis from violence and theft to community-building and fundraising. Marcus Millette’s character Amrit is “a fella who don’t do nothin’ at all, at all, at all, at all, at all, at all, at all, at all…”, but Brian Lara, fresh from one of his many cricket accolades, manages to talk him into becoming more focused and diligent.
Not only does each narrative fit into a larger whole about what a holistic youth legacy may look like, but I’m particularly grateful that there was a focus on reaching deep for underrepresented historical narratives, especially of women. Arielle went so far as to introduce audiences to the jamettes of the era of Canboulay, the warrior-poet women of Carnival history who serve as a confident image of women’s role as the vanguards of revolution. We didn’t gravitate toward all sportsmen or all labour fighters or all politicians. We reached for things that could offer something deeper, a specific glimpse into the kinds of people that our nation’s youth could become.
Philip’s revelation, written and performed by Idrees Saleem, is one of the most accomplished on all of these fronts, presenting a history even many of us on the team didn’t know about before: Muhammad Bath, an enslaved man who bought his own freedom only to form a society that endeavoured to do the same for others, and provide housing and job opportunities for them. That message—that there are so many undiscovered treasures of our national legacy, and no matter who you are or what little potential you think you have, you can become of those treasures with your own determination—is a powerful closing reminder that brings the whole show together beautifully.
Of course, it’s The 2 Cents Movement, so a tour isn’t complete without masterful verse, dramatic delivery and heavy doses of comedy. Unfortunately, those are things you have to see to enjoy. But in the theatrics of it all is one of the better applications of a patriotic narrative: sometimes where you live is suffering and does need to get better, but the strongest shot in your nation’s arm will always be self-motivated young people who see what they can do and be in order to change that narrative into a more positive and inspiring one.
I’m personally more than glad that we get to deliver that message through such a simple speculative lens. The team has taken something that young people usually see as dull and lifeless and turned it instead into something animated, direct, and enjoyable. I’m grateful that I get to merge two parts of my creative practice into one project, and even more pleased that the nation’s youth have actually latched onto it and find value in it. Maybe this means in the future that I get to put even more strange and speculative things in future 2 Cents projects. (A poet can dream.) But even more than that, I’m content to be on a team that appreciates thinking of new, interesting ways to reach out to young people through performance; a team that values experimentation, novelty, collaboration and unified purpose. If a magic lunchkit could take me back to that point, I would do it all again.