Political Education through Theatre
A look back at history then and now
The Hilary Beckles play No Country for a White Hero featuring the politics of Athol Edwin Seymour T.T. Lewis, comes at a time when the nation is celebrating the 375th anniversary of parliamentary rule, much of which was under the domination of the planter-merchant elite.
It captures a very critical period of this parliamentary history, the period 1942 to 1956, when power was wrested from the elite and middle class leaders sought to cement themselves within the existing parliamentary framework, ostensibly for the benefit of the masses.
The play introduces the nation to a white social reformer, A.S. T.T Lewis, who played a significant role in shaping the direction of the country. It is a much needed introduction because many Barbadians might have heard or seen the biography of Lewis, written by his great nephew, Gary Lewis and published by the UWI Press in 1999.
The play highlights the contribution of T.T Lewis in the campaign for franchise reform in a period when only 3,500 people voted in a population of 200,000 persons. Lewis also takes a stand for government-sponsored education for everyone in the society in an age when poverty prevented many bright, black children from acquiring a secondary education. He calls for the sub-division of bankrupt plantations as a means of ending the near chronic landlessness in the country. With this political stance, he is at the heart of the social revolution, along with Grantley Adams and Wynter Crawford.
The play is also significant because it highlights the long and difficult struggle for Universal Adult Suffrage in colonial Barbados. When that franchise was attained, over 95,000 persons where placed on the voting register, the vast majority voting for the first time in the General Elections of 1951. The Beckles play is a timely reminder to all Barbadians that we ought to cherish and exercise this political right, if only because of the sweat and tears of our political leaders in the 1940s.
The play presents a unique situation, not often repeated in the island’s political history – that of a white man fighting for social reform against a well entrenched planter-merchant class. This political agitation threw TT Lewis into the same ‘political furnace’ as Charles Duncan O’Neal, Clennell Wickham and Clement Payne. While TT Lewis was white, with familial links with the plantocracy, from the perspective of the oligarchy, he was ‘numbered’ with the black masses. This political history is also unique for another reason. It is one of the few times in which black Barbadians marched through the streets of Bridgetown alongside and in support of a white Barbadian. I would have loved to see more of this January 1949 event depicted in the play.
I am pleased, however, that the (Harclyde) Walcott-directed play, by placing TT Lewis in the context of a hospital bed in St. Lucia, where he is first introduced and where he eventually dies, underscored the reality of two struggles – one for reform and the other for survival against a chronic health problem. That health problem took his life, some six years before his dream of free education came to fruition which unleashed the talent of Barbadians.
The play underscores the nature of party politics in the 1940s and 1950s. The political battles of Lewis with the oligarchy, Crawford and Adams
represent a good object lesson for the many school children who attended. It shows that public life is not for the faint-hearted; that the road to success is always littered with many obstacles; and that party affiliation, in the case of Lewis, Crawford and Barrow, is never constant. Moreover, the decisions one make and the ideas projected do have a far-reaching impact on the society.
I thoroughly enjoyed the play, with its intimate and close seating arrangements. The actors and the entire production team did a fantastic job and must all be commended for taking us back to that formative stage in our political democracy. Special congratulations to my former student at St. Anthony’s, Carolyn Brathwaite, who played the role of ‘TT’s’ political strategist
Sir Hilary must be commended for his eighth play; he continues to make an invaluable contribution in using theatre to ventilate Barbadian historical struggles. I look forward to similar works on Wynter Crawford and Clennell Wickham.