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Shakespeare in Paradise to revive piece of history

  • E. Clement Bethel introduces Queen Elizabeth II to the directors, cast, crew and the musicians of “The Legend of Sammie Swain” at a command performance in 1985, which took place during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting here in Nassau. In this photo, Her Majesty has stopped to chat with Viveca Watkins and Charlie Bowleg. COURTESY OF THE FESTIVAL

Guardian Arts&Culture

Published: Aug 03, 2013

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The revival of the legendary Bahamian folk opera “The Legend of Sammie Swain” will be this year’s signature Bahamian production at the Shakespeare in Paradise Theatre Festival and festival organizers are hoping to raise the money needed to preserve this important piece of Bahamian culture.

The late E. Clement Bethel originally wrote “Sammie Swain” as a ballet in 1968 and it became a folk opera in the 1980s.

“For people who saw it in 1985... we're doing it again, and for those people who have never seen it, who may have heard of it, which would be the next generation after that, we're doing it,” said Festival Director Nicolette Bethel, E. Clement Bethel’s daughter.

“And for those people who never heard of it, this is a piece of history and Bahamian heritage that was big and changed a lot of people's lives, I think, when they saw it in the ‘70s and ‘80s and their

perception of The Bahamas and themselves. So we hope that we'll be able to provide a kind of inspiration again with Shakespeare in Paradise.”

“The Legend of Sammie Swain” was last produced in 1985 during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nassau, where it was presented in a command performance for Commonwealth heads of state.

“Twenty-eight years have passed since that last performance of ‘Sammie Swain’ – a whole generation,” said Bethel. “In that time, many of the main players have died. The principals who remain are middle-aged; some are elderly. Most of the dancers are beyond age when they can credibly perform the parts.”

A revival of the opera was attempted for The Bahamas’ 30th independence anniversary but the cost was prohibitive, said Bethel.

Bethel is determined to produce “Sammie Swain” this year to mark the 40th anniversary of independence.

“But the time is long overdue for the production to be revived and shared with new generations of Bahamians, most of whom have never heard of, much less, seen, ‘The Legend of Sammie Swain’, although many Bahamians are familiar with its most famous song, ‘When the Road Seems Rough’,” she added.

Bethel believes that unless it is performed soon, this piece of Bahamian culture may be lost forever.

Bethel and her brother, Edward, are spearheading the push for the revival of “Sammie Swain”, and believe it must be revived this year, regardless of cost.

“Even though we are producing ‘Sammie Swain’ as part of Shakespeare in Paradise, and putting the full weight of our festival behind it, and even though the Government of The Bahamas has pledged to step in and offer support, the bare bones of what we need simply to stage and market the show will run us easily to $100,000,” said Bethel.

“Sammie Swain”, she said, is a big production involving dancers, actors, singers and live musicians.

“We have tried to keep it as lean as possible, but cannot imagine a production of fewer than 50 persons, and in our estimation the cast and crew together will require 60 to 70 persons. It is a period piece, requiring a full and functional set and full costuming. It may need new choreography and the script itself, which has proven very hard to locate, may need rewriting,” said Bethel.

She added: “But we're doing it anyway because we believe that we have to. We have no choice if we want this piece of our heritage to survive.”

• Auditions for “The Legend of Sammie Swain” will be split for actors, singers and dancers. The singers’ audition will take place on Tuesday, August 6 at 7 p.m. at the Dundas Rehearsal Hall (the building behind the theater). Singers are asked to come with one song prepared and may also be asked to sing something provided by the musical director at the audition. For more information on rehearsals, visit www.facebook.com/ShakespeareInParadise or twitter.com/shakesparadise; email festassist@shakespeareinparadise.org or call 677-8900 (10 a.m. – 4 p.m.).

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