Caribbean Beat Magazine

Heart of Steel

Derek Walcott's Steel makes its Port of Spain debut

  • Derek Walcott directs the cast of Steel at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Photograph courtesy Abigail Hadeed

Fourteen years after its premiere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Derek Walcott’s musical Steel finally makes it to the Trinidad stage with a reworked script and a lavish production intended to celebrate the Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright’s 75th birthday. The production promises to put to rest the international quarrel about ownership of the steelpan — invented in Trinidad in the last century. Walcott’s lyrics are set to music by his longtime collaborator Galt MacDermot, the composer whose musical Hair revolutionised Broadway in the 1960s. The stellar cast includes Trinidad-born Hollywood actor Leon Morenzie; Brian Green, the Trinidad-born, Paris-based baritone celebrated for his opera roles around the world; the Caribbean’s “Queen of Soul”, Mavis John; and supporting actors from the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Set and costumes are designed by artist Jackie Hinkson, and the musical arrangement is by Gene Lawrence.

Steel tells the story, in song and dialogue, of the birth of the steelpan in Trinidad. Set in the depressed Port of Spain district of Laventille after World War II, it is both a love story and a social examination of the urban community that, despite its economic conditions and violent social backdrop, was able to invent this extraordinary musical instrument. The story is told in part through the eyes of a once-proud calypso king, who at the end of his career counsels a young pan musician about his own future in a society that has failed him.

Steel immortalises the story of the steelband, from rusty drums and pitch oil tins to a pristine orchestral music of the New World — a metaphor of Caribbean peoples themselves, fighting stigma, abuse, and contempt with an enormous capacity to create, invent, and achieve against tremendous odds.

The collaboration of Walcott and MacDermot for this production is the climax of a lifetime’s friendship, starting in the 1970s, which has produced classic works like The Joker of Seville and O! Babylon. Walcott’s lyrics successfully articulate the new global individual who embodies the influences of many cultures, the collision of many experiences, and the collective histories of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It finds expression through the renowned Walcott technique, combining a philosopher’s vision, a poet’s sensitivity, a painter’s eye for colour, a dramatist’s skill with dialogue, and an actor’s flair for posture, through a language that marries the classical precision of standard English with the range of its Creole offspring. This finds its musical equivalent in MacDermot, born of Caribbean parents, whose musical scores now cross the boundaries of jazz, folk, gospel, reggae, rap, and traditional and classical styles.

The million-dollar production — which has two major sponsors in British Gas and Neal and Massy Holdings Limited — is one of the highlights of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s 2005 “Year of Derek Walcott”. Other birthday celebrations include the establishment of the TTW’s Fund for Literature and Drama, offering prizes for young Trinidadian writers and film-makers, including a TT$10,000 prize for short fiction sponsored by Walcott himself.


Steel runs at Queen’s Hall, Port of Spain, from September 13 to 18. For information, or to make bookings, call 868-624-8502