Skins and Steel: a First-Person-Plural History of Calypso Culture in Vancouver

Skins and Steel

All the important stuff on this blog seems to happen in the comments, rather than in my original posts, which anyway have been few-and-far-between of late; and it was in a comment that I mentioned Vanessa Richards’s brilliant show Skins and Steel, which premiered for a two-evening run in November. It is being reprised for a special one-night performance at the Vancity Theatre tomorrow, Thursday, 23 February, as part of Black History Month programming. I urge you to see it.

When I wrote about Skins and Steel, the focus of my discussion was a brief film that plays midway through the show — a “remix” done by Vanessa of a 1960’s era CBC documentary about her parents’ interracial marriage — that fit into a theme of mixed-racedness I had been exploring. I mentioned the stage performance itself only in passing, promising to write a more complete review. Sloth being what it is, that fuller assessment never happened.

The show is no longer fresh-enough in my mind to present a review, per se; but here’s a thumbnail sketch. It traces the introduction of Afro-Caribbean dance and music to Vancouver. The Afro Caribs were a drum-and-dance calypso ensemble, founded in Vancouver when Rudy Richards (Vanessa’s father — and the guy soaring in the photo above), Felix Assoon, Clyde Griffith, and Ron Rogers came from the West Indies in the mid-1950’s to study at UBC. They are now approaching their 80’s, but they perform with a sassy verve that gives a nice sense of how the exoticism and expressiveness of calypso rhythm may have caused an stir, as the staid, monocultural 1950’s had only just begun to give way to a new era of cross-polinated art. The audience is also treated to performances by the great singer and dancer, Thelma Gibson, whose presence exudes that rare mix of elegance and joyfulness that has somehow evaded recent generations, and by steel pan virtuoso Kendrick Headley. Vanessa smartly pulls the melange together with narrative and film clips, including a fascinating segment in which she connects the dots between Vancouver’s dance scene and the seminal New York choreographer, educator, and company director Katherine Dunham, in large part via Ms. Gibson’s brother Len. The show is both personal and fascinatingly revealing of an aspect of Vancouver’s cultural history that is neither well-known nor broadly celebrated.

Go see Skins and Steel — and report-back here to give your impressions. You can offer the review I failed to write.

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1 Response to “Skins and Steel: a First-Person-Plural History of Calypso Culture in Vancouver”


  1. 1 Caribbean Janice 8 August 2012 at 2:03 am

    Thanks for the post, it was a pleasure to read! I’m originally Caribbean and enjoy everything connected with Caribbean culture


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