Drama educator, director and actress Belinda Barnes-Durity—known professionally as Belinda Barnes—said several significant events in her life led to her involvement in theatre.
She told an audience at the Monday Night Theatre Forum on May 16 at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW) that the first such event was failing Common Entrance. She was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Michigan at age 12 and after auditioning for a school play, a nun told her she could be good at theatre.
Upon graduation, her parents sent her to university in Canada, but she dropped out and found herself in New York. She looked up theatre schools—“because that’s what I’d been told I was good at”—and was very surprised to be accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, a celebrated conservatory in New York.
After graduation, she worked with different theatre companies, including the Negro Ensemble Co and Bedford-Stuyvesant Theatre in Brooklyn. She remembered being told to do plastic surgery and work on her accent in order to get ahead, but she never did. She returned to Trinidad eventually, where no one could understand, and she couldn’t explain, why she had chosen to do drama.
Barnes joined the TTW, and went on tour with Derek Walcott. She created the character of the Bolom in Ti-Jean and his Brothers and “danced and sang and thought it was great, because I thought that was what [local] theatre was going to be but when we came back there was nothing happening.”
Barnes next moved to Jamaica, which had a long history of theatre in schools, and immediately got a job at Excelsior High School in Kingston. Barnes also worked with a group in the US Virgin Islands where she performed in Genet’s The Maids.
Despite these early accomplishments, with her upbringing it was hard for her to call herself an actress. Barnes said she felt she didn’t know enough, and studied in the UK with Dorothy Heathcote, who pioneered the field of drama in education.
“Heathcote really understood how to use elements of theatre and drama to get people to learn. She said, ‘The only thing you have to do in this course is work two months in a mental hospital with me. If you can teach mental people anything, you could be a teacher.’”
Barnes said Heathcote was an amazing mentor and the experience was enriching and the craziest one of her life.
Barnes moved back to T&T and worked with Rawle Gibbons at the Tapia House on various plays, including Dennis Scott’s An Echo in the Bone. She did her PhD in drama in education between 1995 and 1998 in Nebraska, but when she came home to write her thesis, she didn’t feel motivated. “I don’t think I’m an academic, I’m a teacher.”
With fellow actresses Eunice Alleyne and Anne-Louise Tam, she wrote and acted in Three Women, directed by Mervyn de Goeas in 2008. The play was a critical success and won four Cacique Awards, including one for outstanding achievement in writing for an original script and most outstanding dramatic production. The last play she acted in was David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, in 2011, again directed by Mervyn de Goeas.
Barnes turned her attention to teaching in high schools, taking jobs at Providence Girls’ Catholic School, Trinity College and Bishop Anstey High School (East). “It’s very difficult to teach drama in Trinidad, because when I started nobody had any respect for you in any schools.
“A lot of parochial schools had a tradition of performance. Drama came into government schools much later, just recently, so the journey was very difficult.”
She credited the Secondary Schools Drama Festival with giving schools an outlet to raise the standards of theatre, which encouraged some respect for the discipline and those working in it.
Barnes lectured in theatre at the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI, St Augustine, from 2004- 2010. She was also the main stage director for The Tempest.
In 2010, she collaborated with actor Michael Cherrie to begin the acting program at UTT, where she is an assistant professor teaching acting, directing, theatre history and educative theatre. She also directed The Ass and the Philosophers (2010); My Most Memorable Christmas (2010); Three Sisters, After Chekhov (2012); Freedom Road (2014); Rose Slip (2014); Amen Corner (2015); and Two Choices (2016).
Barnes said what she enjoys most about teaching is seeing young actors experience a sense of achievement in their work. “Their passion can’t grow if they don’t have that experience. I’ve really enjoyed working with young people on the stage and seeing them really take off.”
Barnes said there are many plays from the 50s that need to be brought back because they are precious and part of T&T’s heritage.
“They really give young people today a taste of Trinidad they know nothing about and could really appreciate.”
She said new work could be created from these plays and from events in T&T’s history. Barnes also said the acting community needs to find new ways to get people to support theatre and advocated for the use of non-traditional spaces, as the bigger venues are too costly for most companies.
“Our young people don’t know about doing anything and everything because you love theatre, and not thinking that because you’re in a production you’re an actress. A lot of students graduate and want to go abroad. We continue to educate people to send them away…We really need to create something to keep our people here.”
The Monday Night Theatre Forum is presented by The Playwrights Workshop Trinbago, and Raymond Choo Kong Productions in collaboration with The Trinidad Theatre Workshop, The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network and the Digital Film Institute.
The Monday Night Theatre Forum series continues monthly at the TTW, corner of Jerningham Avenue and Norfolk Street, Belmont.