Sammie Swain Restaging: An Opportunity To 'Invest In Bahamians'


Tribune Features Reporter


CULTURAL activist Nicolette Bethel, a former Director of Culture, and her brother Edward Bethel, a veteran educator, started an online fund-raising campaign a few weeks ago for the revival of the late E Clement Bethel’s “The Legend of Sammie Swain”.

The brother, sister pair hope efforts to revive their father’s famous folk opera do not go unnoticed.

Through the online campaign hosted by the crowd funding site Indiegogo.com, the family is seeking donations to bring back the play in its richest, truest and original form, for the sake of honouring their father’s memory and the work he consistently produced to build and preserve the cultural essence of Bahamian life. 

Sammie Swain was written and performed almost two decades ago. It tells the story of a disabled Cat Island man who falls in love with the village beauty. Sammie Swain’s love for the village beauty is not returned and in response to his marriage proposal she tells him she will “never marry no cripple”.

A distraught Sammie Swain sells his soul to the devil in revenge and dies in the process. His ghost, a reincarnated Sammie Swain, is beautiful and able-bodied, yet invisible to the villagers. He haunts the village and drives Belinda over the edge.

Belinda’s only hope for survival and sanity is relocating to Nassau.
The Legend of Sammie Swain is an actual folktale collected in Cat Island by Sir Etienne Dupuch, former editor of the Tribune. In the 1950s, he published the legend as it was a told to him in a newspaper series, Ms Bethel told Tribune Arts.

“This clearly captured my father’s imagination, as he would have been a young teenager at the time, and the story stayed with him. The ballet was based on the main points of the legend, and the folk opera fleshes these out,” said Ms Bethel.

Sammie Swain represented the Bahamas in Mexico City at the 1968 Cultural Olympics. This was the first ever performance of the stage production which was a ballet at the time. 

Between 1968 and 1985 the play was performed about eight times. It was performed as a ballet in 1968, and incorporated into the Folklore Show that took place every Thursday during the first Goombay Summer Festival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was also performed by the New Breed Dancers as they toured the USA during the same period.

The last time Sammie Swain was performed in its full version was in 1985, when the government underwrote the cost of reviving Sammie Swain for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Ms Bethel and her family decided now is the time to revive the play, given that the Bahamas celebrates 40 years of independence and it is the 46th anniversary of the play’s first performance.

“We have a sense of urgency about this production. The last time it was performed was 28 years ago, and no one is getting any younger. There are two whole generations who have never seen, or even perhaps heard about Sammie Swain, and they may not know that this part of Bahamian culture even exists. We want to perform it, record it, publish it, and preserve it for future generations. We want Bahamians to be proud of who they are, and we believe that this is something for us to be proud about. It met and held a standard of excellence that inspired the people who were touched by it, and we want that to happen again,”she said.

As some of the originals members are no longer around, Ms Bethel and her team must operate speedily to pull back the curtains on Sammie Swain.

“The sad thing is that much of the original ballet has been lost. Several years ago, the choreographer, Alex Zybine, visited the Bahamas with his wife Violette. At that time, we began to talk about reviving Sammie Swain, and our hope was that he would be able to return and re-stage the ballet. Sadly, though, both Alex and Violette died tragically at the beginning of 2012,” she said.

Yet their efforts will not be thwarted, and the both Ms Bethel and her brother are willing to do whatever it takes to see Sammie Swain performed.

The duo have estimated that it will take close to $100,000 to put on the play successfully. They are seeking to raise $50,000 on Indiegogo, and so far they have reached 6% of that goal.

“Sammie Swain is not an ordinary production. It is a folk opera, which involves dancers, musicians, singers and actors, and to pull it off requires the involvement of many people, both amateur and professional. We have tried as far as possible to keep our cast size to the smallest it can be, and so far we have reduced the whole team to 63 people.
“There are other major cost factors as well. One of them is rent. Proper rehearsal spaces do not come cheap here. Because Sammie Swain is such an involved production, we have to factor in rehearsals on the Dundas stage, where it is going to be performed. The Dundas charges for rehearsals, and each one can run us to $400 or $500, and rent for performances can be as much as $1300. The theatre is working with us, but cannot give away rehearsal and performance space for free, so we are looking at paying in the thousands for rent.
Ms Bethel said Sammie Swain is a period piece and requires the right set for the production, for example houses, a church, a graveyard and a grave at the very minimum. She said past productions also had a mailboat as part of the set.
“Beyond that, we do not just want to make the mistake of simply putting the operetta on without recording it for posterity. We want to make a professional video of the production to make into DVDs so that we can preserve the production for future generations. We want to transcribe and publish the score, and make audio recordings as well. And we would like also to make a documentary of the process. All these things have very real price tags,” said Ms Bethel. 
Ms Bethel believes the story of Sammie Swain must be retold and heard by all.
It will also be the signature production of this year’s Shakespeare in Paradise Festival along with the Shrew.
 “We believe that great art belongs not only to the community that creates it, but also to the world. Here in the Bahamas we invest millions and millions to attract people to come and stay in our country, but invest almost nothing in ourselves. This not only makes us poorer, it deprives the world at large of the creative genius that allowed our ancestors to create a vibrant country out of these rocks in the sea. We spend a lot of time criticising and dismissing what we do and not enough time admiring what we have achieved. Sammie Swain is one of those great things. And it was written by our father, who did so much to build Bahamian culture, who gave his life to that task, in fact, and he has never been properly honoured or remembered by the nation he served. We believe that this production will honour his memory and the memory of all those who worked on it.”


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