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Caribbean comedy’s cross-dressing craze

BLONDE AMBITION: PrinceMarni as Suzan

WITH THE rising popularity of multimedia platforms, we are sharing information and being entertained via the world wide web, now more than ever.

Creatives from various fields need only upload their content via social media to access an international and virtually boundless audience. This has proved to be a springboard to success for many names that we’ve come to know and love, including a plethora of entertainers from the Caribbean.

Although Caribbean comedy has yet to become integrated into the mainstream sphere, evidence shows that it has its place on video sharing sites like Vine and YouTube, as well as social media. Among the pioneers behind this movement are predominantly first or second-generation Caribbean men, who impersonate women, adorned in female attire as part of their act. It’s all the rage.

Typically consisting of portrayals of mothers or girlfriends in Caribbean society, these skits are charged with real life perspectives, like most good comedy.

Over the last five years, more and more homemade videos have come to the fore, prompting widespread comments and shares on social media.

The comedians spearheading this new trend include the likes of Owen Bryan, Chaddy Bwoy, Fatskull and Miss Bomba Claudie, as well as Andrew Trabass, PrinceMarni, Rohan Perry and Majah Hype, who is recognised for his hilarious portrayals of Caribbean characters, including the straight-talking Jamaican elder, Sister Sandrine.

CARIBBEAN CRUSADER: Majah Hype as Sister Sandrine

Another entertainer embracing this trend is Jamaican comic PrinceMarni, who is well-known for his comedic character, Suzan. Reflecting on the impact of social media, PrinceMarni reasons: “The advancement of technology and social media becoming more popular means that people are seeing more things, experiencing more and they’re going to become more accustomed to it. In third world countries especially, social media is everything. Across the board though, the media, social media…it runs everything.”

Even in 2016, society at large is patriarchal. Caribbean society in particular is saturated with hyper-masculine ideals, which have long dictated the norms, values and cultural acceptability of certain behaviours. Still, times are changing.
In times gone by, when greats such as Oliver Samuels and Titus were enjoying widespread prominence, male comedians exhibited macho conduct. Fast-forward to the present day and clearly times, styles and audiences have evolved.

BAJAN SENSATION: Dibbi, portrayed by comic Wayne Rollins

This cultural reform isn’t just restricted to the Caribbean. Since the 1990s up until present day, African-American actors such as Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry have all adorned women’s clothing for comedic effect.

Still, Caribbean society has only recently become more accepting of this form of amusement, partly because of its rather radical, homosexual connotations, which has long been frowned upon.

It is fair to say that Kingston-born actor/comedian Keith ‘Shebada’ Ramsay helped to legitimise effeminate characteristics within the realm of Caribbean comedy and theatre, when he burst onto the scene with the play, Bashment Granny in 2006.

Since then, the Jamaican performer has appeared in a number of successful productions, toured various countries and shrugged off naysayers who have hit out at his ladylike disposition.

What’s more, he has remained tight-lipped about his highly speculated-upon sexuality, telling The Voice in 2013: “If you think that I’m gay, then fine. I like to keep people puzzled. There’s no challenge if I put everything on the table so you can know everything about me.”

There have been other male Caribbean thespians/comedians who have dressed up as women, such as actor Paul Campbell in the action thriller Third World Cop and Charles Tomlin’s performance as Mrs Basson in Blue Mountain Theatre’s 2007 production, Blazee.

Meanwhile, here on UK shores, British comic Wayne Rollins has long entertained audiences with his female, Bajan alter-ego, Dibbi. Donning an array of wigs, high heels and min-skirts, Rollins has, for years, evoked laughter among countless audiences with his rowdy Caribbean character.

PIONEER: Keith ‘Shebada’ Ramsay has earned recognition for his effeminate characteristics

This indicates that the palates of our audiences were changing before this millennial generation of comedians rose to prominence.

“I definitely think that Caribbean people have become more open-minded,” PrinceMarni says. “They are looking more at the other side of things, not just looking one way.”

He adds: “Back in the day, if you saw a man wearing a wig, people would automatically think that he’s gay and judge him based on that.”

Some would argue that this current trend is a veiled contribution to the socio-economic emasculation of the black man.

Critic/writer Steven Malik Shelton asserts: “The demeaning spectacle of black male actors parading around in women’s attire and mocking feminine attributes is yet another calculated assault on the masculine strength of the black man. It is, in effect, no laughing matter.”

However, the act can also be interpreted as a nod to the matriarchal structure within the Caribbean household. Jamaican novelist Olive Senior outlines in her book, Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in The English Speaking Caribbean: “In practice, women do exercise power in the domestic sphere, are major decision makers in some areas and share decision-making in others.”

She added: “Women also fail to recognise their own power in the home and continue to defer to men in many areas, despite the changing economic climate, which forces more women to become breadwinners.”

There are a lot of sole female parent households across the Caribbean diaspora and the matriarchal figure has an indelible impact upon the sons they raise.

Princemarni says: “I have a lot of female friends and family. My inspiration for creating Suzan came from being around Jamaican females. I found it hilarious and decided to mimic that behaviour.”

Equally, Rohan Perry – whose principal act is known as Patricia – has been quoted as saying, “I was inspired by the strong women in my life.”

It must be noted that not all of the notable male, Caribbean comedians are limited to female enactments as part of their appeal.

Still, the acts who have embraced female portrayals as part of their act – and earned success in doing so – indicate that this trend may well be around for years to come.

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