A Song of Ourselves: Playing out the Pandemic in The Bahamas
The lights go down on an empty performance space. There’s a moment—a moment I rarely have in our own theatre—where I feel the kind of anticipation I get in theatres I don’t know well. It’s that moment when the lights dim and the theatre goes to black, when you feel anything could happen. I rarely feel that in our own theatre because most of the time, I know. But it’s Thursday, 9 December 2021, and the cast, who have been sitting in our black box ready to rehearse a new play, Competent Authority, have just filed out through the various exits. The music starts. The stage is empty—and full. Full of possibility—its own possibility.
Our theatre has been closed since March 2020. On 15 March 2020, while our production company, Ringplay Productions, was rehearsing its third play in its second full season, The Bahamas went into full pandemic lockdown. COVID-19 had been identified in a patient who presented to a clinic on Friday the 13th. On 17 March 2020, the prime minister announced that The Bahamas would be taking emergency measures that were yet to be determined. The production was slated to open in days. A set had been installed, a stage had been extended, a cast had been rehearsed, and COVID was in town.
We didn’t wait. We took our own emergency measure and postponed the opening of The Foreigner. Not long after our decision, the government released the official emergency measures for the nation. Every business, all public activity, and everything determined to be non-essential, was to cease. Our borders closed indefinitely. It was spring break, a lucrative time for a tourist destination, but the decision was taken that no commercial flights, cruise ships, or tourists would be admitted. Emergency orders were sweeping—and complete.
To illustrate: the lockdown started during Lent. The Bahamas is not a Catholic country, but it styles itself “Christian,” and most Protestant sects these days have developed the habit of fasting before Easter. The lockdown took on the trappings of the fast: for the next three months, bars and liquor stores were closed. Bahamians were confined to their homes or yards (“but not,” as a character playing a newsreader in Competent Authority instructs, “if it’s an open yard”), and all public gatherings were utterly prohibited. The Foreigner never opened.
Society did, eventually, in stages. By summer 2020, liquor stores were open, and public holidays were no longer to be spent within the confines of our homes. By winter 2020, stores and malls and cinemas were open too. But live performances? Live performances were still prohibited. By March 2021, one year after the initial lockdown, nothing had changed. Not until June 2021 were we allowed to open—for outdoor performances and only during the daytime. The city of Nassau was still operating under a 9 p.m. curfew.
And then, in September, a general election brought a change of administration and a shift in attitudes to dealing with the pandemic. Emergency orders were finally retired, to be replaced by standing legislation that allowed more flexibility in responding to the pandemic. The curfew was extended to midnight, and Ringplay Productions’ Shakespeare in Paradise mounted the first play in eighteen months: Love’s Labour’s Lost in the iconic Fiona’s Theatre of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. It was produced according to the strictures outlined by the latest emergency orders. In other words: with a fully vaccinated cast, in an outdoor performance space, with an audience limited to one-third of the capacity of that space. And it was a roaring success. Our audience returned to see live theatre, and our actors—well, our performers had come back to life again.
As Love’s Labour’s Lost closed, the idea grew that we needed to open our theatre space now; that we needed to take theatre indoors again. Philip Burrows, our artistic director, announced to the Ringplay company that we were going to revive the idea we’d had halfway through the pandemic of creating a play about the pandemic itself. Back in the autumn of 2020, that idea had taken the form of a comic review or a farce, a lampooning of the absurdities of the lockdown. We needed to laugh, we reasoned. The Bahamas had no other defences.
The vaccine may have been rolling out in rich countries which could manufacture their own supplies, but our small nation on the periphery of the world economy had to wait. It wasn’t just a matter of money—The Bahamas was well-equipped to purchase vaccines. It was a matter of policy, availability, and—in the case of Pfizer and Moderna—storage. In fact, vaccines didn’t arrive in the country until March 2021, when a gift from the government of India landed twenty thousand doses of AstraZeneca in Nassau. A continuing shortage of vaccines over the summer meant that by August 2021, only a fraction of the population—15-17 percent—were vaccinated at all.
One year after our first flirt with the idea of writing a pandemic play, Corona Chronicles, our perspective was different. Most of the company was now fully vaccinated, AstraZeneca’s vaccine having been available for five months. At the same time, COVID-19 had struck very close to home. One of our resident playwrights had been hospitalized with a bout of the Delta variant. She recovered but not all of her household did. Now, merely laughing about the pandemic no longer seemed the best way to respond.
So, we pivoted. Competent Authority was devised to document the pandemic from the moment Bahamians noted its arrival up to the day of the performance. It was no longer a satire or a farce, but a docudrama. We didn’t get rid of laughter altogether—the solemnity of the production had to be tempered with some lightheartedness, some comic relief—but it was now a chronicle of how The Bahamas had responded to the pandemic. And we are still struggling. By the time Competent Authority opened on 13 December 2021, 37 percent of the population was fully vaccinated, and at the end of 2021 we were still working towards a majority.
Here’s how we opened the play: We produced it in the Philip A. Burrows Black Box, a theatre which can hold eighty to a hundred people but whose capacity we reduced to sixty to allow for a little more social distancing. Only fully vaccinated people were permitted to attend the production, and all cast, crew, and staff were also fully vaccinated. The audience had to show proof of vaccination, sanitize at the door, and remain fully masked throughout the show.
The play itself was delivered for the most part by actors portraying newsreaders, most of them spaced six feet apart. When not performing, they retreated upstage to stools where they waited for their turn. News reports and social media narratives were broken up by original scenes and monologues. No more than two actors played opposite one another at any given time, and there were only two such scenes. The lights bounced from speaker to speaker, shifting attention and perspective from one moment to another. Musical interludes separated scenes, and scenes were devised according to the progression of the pandemic.
Back to myself in the audience: This time I’m watching a public performance, a full week after I’d first watched that rehearsal and been struck by that moment of anticipation, that moment of theatrical magic when anything can happen. Anything is happening now. I’m watching Competent Authority, which is beginning with a series of news reports: the announcement of the first confirmed COVID case in country, the establishment of emergency orders, the institution of the curfew, the ravages of the lockdown.
I hear true stories, stories culled from Facebook and other websites, transcribed from video clips and reproduced verbatim. Through them, Ringplay’s artistic director, Philip A. Burrows, reconstructs the timeline of how we handled the COVID crisis. The stories push beyond the daily dashboard of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. He’s chosen tales that have what editors call human interest. Inspired in part by Tina Satter's Is This A Room, which he saw in New York, he’s inserted moments that were heart-stopping on their own, like the string of Facebook statuses outlining a bereaved daughter’s grief and anger. And when he couldn’t find the stories he needed, he wrote them: short exchanges, some of them bleak, others wryly funny.
These are presented by actors lit by strong, white overhead lights so that their faces are stark; partly illuminated, partly in shadow. The chiaroscuro of their presentation parallels the pandemic itself: the darkness, absurdity, and deaths alongside the levity of certain moments and the kindness of others. When the action moves into real narrative—in moments of monologue or dialogue—it moves center stage into a softer, more human light; a more golden wash that allows the whole person to be seen. There is a rhythm to the production that works like a pendulum swinging, first this way, then that, which takes us back to the vacillations of the pandemic itself and the way in which we dealt with it.
It’s a hard show to watch. The audience—who may have been attracted by the title as much as by the idea that at last, at last, they could come back to see theatre—has to work to absorb it all. The news reports go by quickly, delivering facts and figures that don’t fall easily upon the watchers. Some of the scenes are shocking in their starkness—like the story of the young man who was arrested for selling coconuts to feed his family or the story of the woman whose mother caught COVID and died after being admitted to the hospital for emergency treatment. Other scenes take grand leaps to make connections, like the piece about the Dutch practice of cow hugging. And Erin Knowles-McKinney, the director, has provided no cushions against these moments. The cast has been directed to deliver them without room for relief.
Competent Authority was devised to document the pandemic from the moment Bahamians noted its arrival up to the day of the performance. It was no longer a satire or a farce, but a docudrama.
Some people get lost. Some fall asleep. And some surreptitiously glance at their phones. But what surprises me is how much of the audience doesn’t do any of these things—how the word of mouth spreads, and houses go from sixteen bookings on Monday evening to a sold-out performance of sixty seats on Saturday. Some people come back again and again—one person three times, maybe four, and others two or three times. The show is striking a nerve.
There’s a thing about theatre in The Bahamas. We have no industry. We work for free, for food, for stout, for stipends. For love.
Because we need it.
Because there is something inside us that makes us return again and again, after hurricanes and in the ebbing pandemic, to a stage that exists only by the force of a few people’s will. To a theatre that occupies a building that was left in trust “for the Bahamian people” but which was established expressly to train those Bahamian people how to be the best servants a European could ever want.
We have no industry, but theatre gets made anyway.
We have no industry, I’m convinced, because the triple legacies of genocide, enslavement, and colonial rule, coupled with the peculiarities of our own British-Bahamian iteration of white minority rule—a mash-up of apartheid and Jim Crow without the evidence of specific legislation—determined that most of us are not really human anyway, and theatre is a terribly humanizing endeavour.
You could say that Ringplay Productions is fortunate. We inhabit a beautiful property. We manage a colonial building that—being sturdy as a jail and taller than the courthouse—made a better theatre than the civic (read: training) center it was built to be. But pretty much the only money we have to run it comes from the money our theatrical productions raise. The lockdown—the full eighteen to twenty months of it—“almost killed” us, as one of the speakers in Competent Authority says. To be performing again and to be performing in our buildings—never mind that the termites took hold during the lockdown and the rats have returned—is a little triumph all its own.
And so: Competent Authority. It’s our critique of the pandemic that almost killed us. It’s our very own song of ourselves.