Derek Walcott speaks

Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Walcott (l) being interviewed by Rick Wayne in 1987.

Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Walcott (l) being interviewed by Rick Wayne in 1987.

Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott is not one to pussyfoot, particularly when talking about the Arts. Walcott has been vocal in the past about a number of issues:  back in 1990 he warned then Prime Minister John Compton to abandon his plans to alter the Pitons to tourism requirements. Walcott was known for telling it like it is then, and at a press conference this week to launch his latest play, the Nobel Laureate proved he had changed little in the regard.

Walcott’s play “O, Starry, Starry Night” will premiere at Saamans Park on Thursday, August 8-10. The play opened in the United Kingdom earlier this year, and the St Lucia showing will be its Caribbean premiere.

Set in the South of France, when Paul Gauguin visited Vincent van Gogh while he was living in Arles in 1888, O Starry, Starry Night is based around a meeting of the two artists. According to producers, the St Lucian production will feature the original Essex cast flown in from the UK, Paris and Trinidad. They will be joined by sole St Lucian actress Natalie La Porte, who plays the pivotal role of Lotte—a prostitute with positively artistic aspirations.

At Monday’s press conference Derek Walcott said: “The last time I worked with Natalie there were three other actresses, one of them very talented. Her name was Stacy Giddens. The level of performance of these actors and actresses is equal to anything you can get abroad. I think people walk around the streets here, and you see them, maybe they’re shopping, maybe they’re doing something . . . that person may be an actress of great quality, but the familiarity tends to lessen the person’s stature. In the case of this play, I have what amounts to the National Theatre of Trinidad talent, Wendell Manwarren, Nigel Scott, Brian Green, who’s also a terrific singer.  When I work with these actors, I don’t feel as though I am lowering my standard, or trying to accommodate what I feel is great respect for their talent. In some cases the talent is better or as good as anyone I’ve worked with in New York, or London. Natalie is one of them, and I’m very happy to work with her.”

Typically the launch provided Walcott another opportunity to talk about the state of art at home:  “I’ve been saying the same thing about the Arts in the Caribbean for a long, long time and I can only repeat myself about the necessity for support. What happens in these small places, you get people who lead, set an example and ignore applause or money. You’re lucky in having someone like Adrian [Augier] come along after a certain

phase . . .What Adrian is doing is very good and useful for the country but we need to do more plays. We need as much support as we can get.”

Additionally: “I don’t have a negative attitude toward St Lucia itself. The quality of the work, the quality of the people in the work, is very strong. I don’t know if people realize or recognize quality for what it is, when it is.”

He said there were a lot of things to be angry about. “How can we have a dump, like what is the National Cultural Center? It’s a dump, yet we invite great artistes to be here. We’ve had Arthur Miller here . . . We should be embarrassed. If we had a house like that we wouldn’t bring anybody inside it. It’s a public monument of a building, and it’s a disgrace that it should be there for so long. If you go to the toilets, you wouldn’t stay. You can’t go to the toilet, I couldn’t!”

At that point STAR publisher Rick Wayne, one of the invited guests at the occasion, interjected: “The problem with that is, you’ll likely get some flack for speaking that truth.”

“I can’t get flack if I want to go to the John and I don’t dare go!” Walcott shot back. “You can give me all the flack you want but just give me a toilet!”

His words sent the audience into fits of laughter, but there wasn’t a single person at the gathering who could not relate to the harsh reality. Once everyone had settled down again, Wayne went on: “You’ve made some pretty strong statements in your time that are going to be on record long after we’re both gone.”

Quick as a whip, Walcott replied: “I’m not going anywhere.”

Asked whether he ever got depressed about the state of the arts at home, Walcott responded: “I used to have a rage, but even that has been worn out . . . the rage has been worn out by the patience. It’s infuriating to look at the public buildings we have here to represent the arts. I just came back from Martinique; they have something a little more dignified than we have. If I come here with people like Paul Simon and I take them to what is supposed to be my grand building, to The Great Dump, I’m embarrassed. Embarrassed and furious about the next generation.”

Asked about the status of the Rat Island Foundation, intended to function as a center for cultural activity, a not too distant “home away from home” for the Arts, Walcott said the initiative remained a great idea, one he was beginning to get “very, very tired of.”

“If I can still see it happening that would be wonderful, but I am getting tired of it now, the failure of it, the inaccessibility of . . .  I don’t know why there’s not a building in St Lucia that can at least be the equivalent of any of its artistes,” he said. “I don’t know why. The only answer is money. But I see things going up that are built from money; so it might be the blanket condemnation of the island as a cultural desert.  Succession after succession of government comes and nothing happens, so at my age, I can only ask, why doesn’t it happen?”

He recalled his brother, Roderick Walcott “who did so much here for the arts, and died here without seeing any of that happen.”

Walcott made it clear he was not in fact labeling the situation hopeless, but  “we are justified in being angry at politicians for not giving us a decent building where you can put on a play or do a dance. Why hasn’t it been done? Probably because the people up there are not interested in the arts, and basically are idiots. They’re not interested in reading, painting . . . so it has to come down to something very personal.”

For a large part of the proceeding, it appeared as though Walcott and Rick Wayne had forgotten that there were in fact other people in the room, as they went about their passionate discourse. Wayne suggested to the Nobel Laureate that perhaps the artists had a part to play in the present situation. Perhaps the fact that artists rarely spoke out about issues, whether or not directly affecting them, was part of the reason they were being ignored.

“Even the more prominent ones do not call press conferences, or go on television to talk about the issues,” said Wayne. “We only hear of this sort of thing from you. Everything is called excellent is here, or ignored.”

After a brief moment of contemplation, Walcott turned to the audience and said: “Maybe it’s because the artists go on in defiance of being ignored that people take it for granted that there will always be art.”

Someone asked what it would take to bring Arts in St Lucia to its rightful place? Derek Walcott had one suggestion. “Scholarships,” he said. “Why aren’t there any more? Why don’t they give them? The West Indies almost doesn’t deserve its artists . . . Do they want scholarships? Do they want better artistes? I don’t know. I don’t know if St Lucia wants any more artistes. It’s a hell of a thing to say but it’s true.”

Rick Wayne grumbled: “There is always a price to pay for this neglect!”

Tickets for the play can be purchased from Landmark Events, LIME Outlets and Sunshine book stores.

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