1983. Meeting the Midnight Robber Celia Burgess Macey
August 19 @ 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm
1983. Meeting the Midnight Robber Celia Burgess Macey
It was carnival time. Whilst I was walking up Frederick Street I was accosted by an old man and two children all dressed in Robber costumes. He looked me straight in the eyes, displaying a knowing twinkle, and held me at gunpoint while he recited a long dramatic speech. I was quite astonished and Neil who was laughing told me I must pay him a
dollar otherwise he would continue.
So I did this and then turned to the children and asked them if they were going to challenge me too. To my delight they immediately performed their speeches and also got a dollar. And that was my first meeting with a Midnight Robber.(3 in fact)
Of course we went to see the street parade on Carnival Tuesday. Peter Minshall’s band were particularly impressive, there was a costume shaped like an atomic bomb and lots of very dramatic and scary costumes. The most dramatic of all were the Moko Jumbies, who were all dressed in black with long flowing sleeves. As a large group of them advanced down the road and across the Savannah towards the carnival stage, the hairs
literally stood up on the back of my neck. I was hooked. This was more than fun. This was passion and spirit. This was life and death.
The Midnight Robber
The Midnight Robber is a complex character whom I have encountered in a variety of settings. I have also read about the character in the National library in Trinidad and in a variety of scholarly articles. I have seen the large Robber like hats in the African section at the British Museum. I have seen the Robber costume in the Horniman Museum. I have seen similar characters in the carnival in Cuba, but always slightly different.
I have described my first meeting in the streets of Port-of-Spain and have since listened to many Robber speeches delivered in the competition which is held each year in Port of Spain. Brian Honore always particularly impressed me and I noticed that he included political aspects in his speech. I also noticed that very few women played this character, but they did exist. When I was working in St Ursula’s girls primary school during one of my educational exchange projects, the girls played this character enthusiastically along with other traditional characters like Damme Lorraine and Devil. So what is it in this character that particularly attracts me personally?
Firstly I respect the complexity of the character. The Robber is complex-a syncretic mix of cultural forms. Part African masquerade, part European Catholic Lenten carnival’s Grim Reaper and ubiquitous deathsheads, part Mexican day of the dead and part cowboy hero. Is he hero or anti hero. I am never quite sure.
Secondly I see the Robber as deeply connected to the oral tradition, which contains many layers of meaning but is undervalued in mainstream culture. His speeches surely resonate with the poetry of the African griots, with the boastful and declamatory speech of superheroes, giants and monstrous spirits. He sounds like Amos Tutuolas ghosts. He sounds like Beowulf. He sounds like a character from Shakespeare. My mother who had been Shakespearean actress used to recite Shakespeare to me from a very young age. The Midnight Robber is larger than life. He is scary like the monsters we were scared of in the stories and folk traditions we imbibed as children.
Thirdly he is impressive. He makes his physical presence felt in his swagger. He commands attention with his whistle. His long and wide cloak take up space and clear the way. His large hat takes up space and makes a statement. His costume has the deaths heads and skeletons of the mediaeval imagination, he reminds us of the inevitability of death. He threatens us with his gun as well as with his speech. He challenges us to pay attention. I can relate to that Challenge. I am not afraid to take up space.
My father worked in a felt Hat factory. His job was to test the hats for weatherproofing and the stability of the dyes. He used to bring all kinds of hats home and many of them ended up in our dressing up box. A large black Mexican cowboy hat was the particular favourite of mine. When I was a young and flamboyant student in the 1960s I used to wear this hat accompanied by tightfitting black velvet trousers from Carnaby street and leather boots. I also had a cape. I was anticipating the Midnight Robber.
Lastly I love the speeches. The poetry of the English language-the language of the Bible, of Chaucer, of Milton and of Shakespeare. I studied that language in my English degree. The playing with impressive vocabularly and the creating of atmosphere-conjuring fear and awe from words. Creating an argument. We have sadly lost the art of declamatory and oratorical speeches. The oratory I grew up with in church and in politics. So I try in my speeches to capture something of the power of words. I try to use those words to describe cataclysmic events, the beginning and end of worlds. I try to use the speech to accuse people in power and to speak truth clothed in metaphor. It is not hard to learn the speech by heart, but it is hard to recall it under the pressure of performance in front of the carnival judges!.
In Yaa I also played Pierrot Grenade on two occasions. This is another character who plays with language and adopts a scholarly posture and attitude which suited my teacher identity. However I had no opportunity to perform any Pierrot speech.
Neil joined this band and in 2002 he and I played a Fancy Sailor for the theme Tru de Eye and in 2003 he played Sailor while I played a Midnight Robber. Whilst I love playing mas in the band with Neil chippin down the road together, it was more difficult to stay in character when his presence constantly reminded me of my real life self!
My membership of Yaa Asantewaa Carnival band came to an end when they decided that they would only bring out a youth section band not an adult band. Since I was not a youth that excluded me. I retain great affection for that band but I needed somewhere to play mas.
Sunshine International Arts
The band’s artistic practice is grounded in the traditions of Caribbean Carnival, including the traditional characters that I so love. I was delighted when Ray suggested that I could play Midnight Robber. I was even more delighted when he agreed that I could write my own speech. It is in this band that I have been able to grow into my character, whether Pierrot Grenade or Midnight Robber, because Ray has given me the artistic freedom to do so. I enjoy my day on the road and the reaction of the crowds and the scared faces of children shrinking behind their adults.
Written by Celia Burgess Macey 26th of May 2020