Rapsoman Wendell Manwarren has had a long and varied career in the arts, beginning with the opera and continuing through theatre, mas-making and rapso. Manwarren spoke about his journey to a standing-room only crowd at the Monday Night Theatre Forum held on June 6, at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, Belmont.
The musician, actor and director grew up in Belmont in close proximity to a wide range of characters involved in Carnival, including the famous sailor mas man, Jason Griffith, famous man of the theatre Austin Forsyth, sound engineer Robin Foster and soca legend David Rudder. His parents used to play pan and mas with different bands.
“For me, growing up in Belmont is a powerful thing, I have a grounding, and I’ve come to discover that time and time again and try to reinvest and represent that in everything I do.” Manwarren also grew up watching Best Village theatre on T&T Television (TTT), where, he said, the folk culture was alive. It awoke in him a love of storytelling.
“I’m a T&T storyteller, I’m grounded in T&T, I seek no other grounding. It’s an eternal quest, something I can’t get enough of, trying to understand who we are, why we are, where we’re going.”
He lamented the eventual involvement of the State in the art form, which he said turned it into something else.
After leaving St Mary’s College, Manwarren fell into doing opera with the T&T Light Operatic Society alongside UK-based T&T tenor Ronald Samm and Roger Roberts—the latter now Manwarren’s partner in rhyme in the rapso trio 3Canal. He got into theatre in 1984 when he won the lead in Guys and Dolls, directed by Belinda Barnes. Afterward, he decided he wanted to be a part of the Trinidad Tent Theatre.
Tent Theatre, under the guidance of Helen Camps, was a training ground for many T&T thespians, including prominent director and actor Raymond Choo Kong.
Manwarren said he was lucky to be there and catch a bit of the fire, as his compatriots became the next generation of directors and producers. Here, he met met Dave Williams, Maryanne Roberts, Leslie-Ann Wells, Brian Richardson, Godfrey Sealey, Christine Johnson, Mervyn de Goeas, Debra Boucaud-Mason and Maurice Brash, to name a few. Manwarren said he was lucky to be there and catch a bit of the fire, as his compatriots became the next generation of directors and producers. He said theatre was the first thing he found he was good at, other than studying.
“People would come to me and say I’m good, and the kind of people saying it, I knew they weren’t trying to mamaguy me. For me there was an inherent regard and respect for people who were doing this before me; I didn’t come in there thinking I was all that, which is a big difference to what happens now.”
Manwarren then moved on to working with The Bagasse Co. It was there he realised that he was interested in the directing and sound design aspects of theatre. Manwarren also began to do voice ads.
“I’ve lived by doing voices for the last 30 years. My mother always used to tell me to ‘speak properly’ but I always appreciated our own language. I didn’t think it was ‘less than’ so I was able to understand you could speak English and you could speak Trini.”
While at Bagasse, he got the opportunity to go to a retreat in Scotland, and there he learned to “claim his power.” He said he realised he didn’t have to take every job that was offered, and gradually he fell out of acting.
Manwarren was also working with Peter Minshall at The Callaloo Co, where he learned theatre as spectacle, and was Minshall’s assistant at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where the mas giant staged massive productions as part of the opening ceremonies. Manwarren also drummed for Gloria Estafan during her performance of Reach at the closing ceremony of the Atlanta Games.
Manwarren said the prehistory of 3Canal “to many people is those three years we spent making J’Ouvert and it was myself, Roger Roberts and Steve Ouditt. Steve drew, I wrote and Roger produced. Steve wanted the group to have a badman name, and 3Canal resonated.” “Three canal” is a vernacular name for a cutlass with three lines or channels on the blade close to the handle.
“We’ve since gone on to exploit that metaphor: it’s a weapon used to cut and clear, make a statement and you also use it to protect yourself.”
The band’s big break came in 1997 when Manwarren and Roberts, together with Stanton Kewley and John Isaacs, released the song Blue. It was a tremendous hit and resulted in the formation of the phenomenally large Blue J’Ouvert band.
Manwarren said it was a horrible experience as so much could have gone wrong, and the band ended up “paying the devil” with Manwarren getting hit in the throat by a rock and Roberts ending up in the hospital.
Nonetheless, he said, Blue took them all over the world. They were able to record almost 200 songs with various producers, including the late producer Sheldon “$hel-$hock” Benjamin, who Manwarren remembered as being no-nonsense and pure.
“We did Happy Song, Good Morning Neighbour… people would stop us to tell us where they were when they heard it and how it changed their lives. I love music so much I still can’t believe we make music as a career, but there’s a part of me that’s very aware of what it is and what we could do with it.”
Manwarren said the group decided to do rapso because it was non-competitive. “It allowed us to make a statement. We had to find our voice and we had harmonies from years of singing in choirs, which no one else had.” In 1999 the band released Talk your Talk, which remains one of their most popular songs to date.
Isaacs died in 2000, in the heart of the Carnival season, and Manwarren said his legacy still lives with them today as he was the aristocrat of the group who insisted they hold themselves to a certain standard.
Manwarren has also worked with Noble Douglas at the Lilliput Theatre for the last 25 years or so, and acts in plays by Derek Walcott. He’s grateful to have worked with Douglas, Raymond Choo Kong, Tony Hall, Eintou Springer, Mavis John and other heroes and that’s why “I can relate to the youth and put myself back in their shoes a little bit. I don’t take any of it for granted.” His last play with Walcott was “Starry Starry Night” about artists Van Gogh and Gaugin.
“I felt blessed and fortunate to be in that play, Walcott was at his frailest, thought he wouldn’t make it. He held Brian Green and myself, said he has to present the work with fellows like us because we know how to speak his speech and his verse and his language. I will never forget that night, I was overcome with emotion. Another moment that filled me with awe and emotion was watching Eintou Springer and Mavis John and Eunice Alleyne onstage with Shades of I-She and the generations on stage, all that power in the backyard of Godfrey Sealey.”
“The role I see myself is playing now is to fill the voids with a sense of urgency, and those voids for the most part have to do with knowledge and valuation of self, commitment to self and self-determination.” He also advocated for the creation of safe spaces for the arts to develop, such as TTW, his own theatre space the Big Black Box, and the Little Carib Theatre.
“Joseph Campbell would say you have to follow your bliss but in order to follow your bliss you need sacred spaces within which you can create work, this is one of these spaces, Black Box, Little Carib Theatre, we make the spaces all the time out of nothing, that’s our reality, we’re still pioneering, we need to start institution-building. There’s no reason for TTW to be cap in hand for anything, in any other place, time, context, we would value what this space represents, and investing in it to ensure that it not only survives but thrives, and informs a whole generation of young actors and performers and entertainment lawyers. There’s plenty music, no industry, no possibility for industry, not when the major players are cutting each others throat for a couple of million dollars. We have to see things for what they are, we ain’t all that, especially in the context of what we have and what we could do with it, we have culture, heart and soul, the Red Bull Music Academy just did a feature on Ras Shorty I, an in-depth analysis you don’t get on the ground here, who am I, where am I, what am I doing here? If I do my work and nobody cares, does it matter? All the money goes to trade fairs and cruises, in 2016! No money is coming to culture, it’s going to shit! In 1970, I was six years old, when Walcott said the future lies in militancy, Black Power was real, people were fighting for something. Diversification of the economy to involve the creative sector is just talk; we need to see what exists and build on that. We need to bring back the old time days of TTT and project ourselves to the world with pride.”
He had two pieces of advice for younger artists. Firstly, as Shakespeare said, “Above all else, to thine own self be true.” But, he chided they must remember “it didn’t start with you and it won’t end with you, so you need to know what came before you or you’ll be in trouble.”
The Monday Night Theatre Forum is presented by Playwrights Workshop Trinbago and Raymond Choo Kong Productions in association with Trinidad Theatre Workshop, The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network, Digital Film Institute and Trinity College in-Trinidad Global Learning Site.