Bocas Lit Fest 2016, Penelope Spencer and Rhoma Spencer
By Natasha Ofosu
Trinidad & Tobago | Monday 23 May 2016: 11:11 BST
Sixty years after he won his first Calypso Monarch title, a theatrical tribute has been paid to the Mighty Sparrow and his breakthrough calypso Jean and Dinah at the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s literary festival. Actresses Penelope Spencer and Rhoma Spencer, playing Jean and Dinah respectively, brought the song to life in a short play at the National Library, Port of Spain, on 28 April. Created by playwright and director Tony Hall the piece, entitled “Jean and Dinah who have been locked away in a world famous calypso speak their minds publicly”, imagines the characters as old women who have seen better days - Jean’s left arm is paralysed, Dinah has lost her sight and both use walking sticks. The two reveal individual stories of abuse and tragedy which led them to become prostitutes. And while Jean still had a thirst for carnival, the playground which made them legends, Dinah declared she was staying at home and would take to her bed instead. Now 80, Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) made his debut on the calypso circuit in 1954. He won the first of his eight Calypso Monarch titles with Jean and Dinah in 1956 and emphatically stamped his mark on that carnival competition as well as the calypso world. Recognised as a stinging social commentary, the veteran bard gloats in the lyrics of the song that the American (“Yankee”) soldiers stationed in Trinidad during the Second World War had gone, leaving the prostitutes who had once entertained them to the wiles of local men. “If you catch them broken / You can get them all for nothing / Don’t make a row / The Yankees gone and Sparrow take over now,” he sings. Sparrow himself recalled his audience’s response to his winning performance at the Calypso finals: “The crowd, man the crowd, from the first verse the stands were in an uproar,” he recounted to his friend, newspaper columnist Keith Smith. Smith, who died in February 2011, recorded the conversation in a column for the Trinidad Express newspaper in 2004. At the festival, comedian Nikki Crosby read from the column, which quoted calypso historian Professor Gordon Rohlehr stating that it was “remarkable” that a song about the withdrawal of US troops could enjoy the popularity it did, 10 years after the event. Smith wrote, “It may be that the bitterness evoked by the presence of American soldiers, as wealthier competitors in the skin trade, had outlasted them by a decade. It is however more likely that the calypso made its impact through the personality of Sparrow – his youth, vigour, confidence and the sense that he represented the newness of the time. Another reason for the popular Jean and Dinah was the vitality and the biting cynicism with which Sparrow was able to invest a worn out theme.” Another take on the public’s view of Sparrow and his enduringly popular calypso was conveyed by nine-times Chutney Soca Monarch Rikki Jai. He read an excerpt from Raffique Shah’s 2001 commentary, in which he explained the contrasting views of young and older members of the Indo-Trinidadian community. “One could sense then that unless he was a flash-in-the-pan, here was a man who was destined to alter calypso forever,” Shah wrote. “From schoolyards to playgrounds, boys and girls sang Jean and Dinah, even though as children we hardly understood the theme of the song. And I'm writing about little Indian boys and girls, Africans, Chinese, everyone.” But while the young people found the song infectious, they risked being beaten by their elders if caught singing the song. He wrote, “From the moment he sang Jean and Dinah, Sparrow was viewed by most adult Indians as a vulgar calypsonian who was dismantling their religious and cultural values (they understood that Sparrow was singing about ‘jamettes’), hence he was anathema to them.” Each year the NGC Bocas Lit Fest pays tribute to a writer. Festival director Marina Salandy-Brown said that Sparrow’s classic calypsos showed he was, “an unparalleled wordsmith”. By a show of hands, most people at the event said they knew the words to Jean and Dinah - so former Soca and Calypso Monarch Kurt Allen led them in a rousing a capella rendition of the song to close the tribute.