Trinidad’s Caroline Taylor: packing light

In Pack Light, Trinidadian performer Caroline Taylor discovers herself

  • Persona of an American tourist. Photograph by Jeffrey Chock

Wherever there’s music or theatre, there’s bound to be a Caribbean performer mixed up in it somewhere. Whether it’s playing Aida on Broadway, Lion King in London, or touring the globe with Porgy and Bess, actors and dancers and musicians from the Caribbean somehow manage to be up there with the best.

Not that it’s easy, breaking through onto the international stage, as any of them will tell you. If young graduates of the great arts schools in New York and London have enough trouble finding work, imagine the struggle for those without the benefits of tradition and training behind them.

So putting real Caribbean experience on the metropolitan stage must logically be harder still. That’s exactly what Caroline Taylor (who is also on Caribbean Beat’s editorial staff) started to do, when she became the first Caribbean performer to produce her own show at New York’s International Fringe Festival last summer. Not content with that, she chose to produce her own one-woman play, Pack Light, and for a week of performances stood alone on stage, with only a few props (including a steel pan), a soundtrack of Trinidadian music, and a projector for company.

“It’s very strange to try and perform your own reality, your own eccentricities onstage,” she told Caribbean Beat. “You feel completely exposed, and both your personal and artistic lives are fair game for judgment and criticism. There are so many layers of self-consciousness. But I have a big mouth, and felt like I had some points to make, so I claimed my soap box.”

Her point was about finding out who you are when, like so many Caribbean people, you are more than one thing. Parents of different race, religion, origin and colour; Caribbean soul and metropolitan restlessness; being neither fully one thing or the other … dump the baggage, the play suggests. Pack light.

As Caroline puts it in the script: “I realised that knowing who you are was vital, otherwise you would get stuck with everyone’s version of you.”

The entertainment in the play comes largely from exploring everyday situations where you have to deal with everyone else’s version of who you are, like it or not. Being pulled out of queues at airports for special attention (where’s she from?), deciding which box to check on immigration forms (Other???), feeling the earthy pull of traditional Trinidadian folk dance when your basic training has been in ballet.

Caroline recalls: “The hardest thing was probably dancing alone — or dancing at all, for that matter — since I think it’s my weakest performing discipline and something I’m extremely self-conscious doing.” But a well-prepared folk-based dance at the end of the play was an essential element of it, anchoring the performer in a sense of Trinidadian identity.

Caroline grew up in Trinidad as a born performer, both in music and theatre. “In a lot of ways, I feel like my spirit doesn’t come to life until I’m on a stage with lights in my eyes. There’s a kind of centeredness I get from performing that isn’t duplicated anywhere else in my life.”

New York theatre reviewer Tomi Tsunoda agreed after seeing Pack Light, saying bluntly: “The dilemma of the global ‘mutt’, though increasingly common, is woefully under-discussed, and Taylor deserves kudos for trying to bring a spotlight to it . . . The writing [in Pack Light] is intelligent, engaging, and well-structured. Taylor is extremely likable, the performance is intimate and conversational, and it is easy to believe everything she says . . . [this is a] passionate and intelligent young writer, who has some considerable performance chops. Many of the anecdotes are compelling, moving, and funny.”

The play is still a work in progress. It was first developed while Caroline was an undergraduate in performance studies at Williams College in Massachussetts. But “the content and the tone of the piece change as I do. It reflects my own experiences, the things that frustrate me and amuse me, things I learn and things I feel like I can’t figure out.”

She plans to take the play on tour in the US, when no doubt the script will change further. “Singing more. Digging deeper. I think I’m still afraid to face some of the things I think and feel, and I think that’s a fairly widespread human predicament, which is why I insist on talking about it. I think confronting my own prejudices and issues fearlessly resonates more strongly with audiences and empowers them.”

And isn’t that what theatre is all about?

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