On NourbeSe Philip’s Coups and Calypsos
On NourbeSe Philip’s Coups and Calypsos
Because they’re sending Indians to India,
And the Negroes back to Africa,
Can somebody please just tell me,
Where they sending poor me?
I am neither one nor the other—
Six of one, half a dozen of the other,
If they serious ‘bout sending back people for tru’
They’ve got to split me in two.
―Mighty Dougla, “Split Me in Two”
When does the fragment cease being a part of the w/hole? To become its own w/hole?1
―M. NourbeSe Philip, “Fugues, Fragments,
and Fissure: A Work in Progress”
A calypso is a satirical record of disaster. The music of the enslaved communicated outside the frequency of the slavers. Kaiso survived the severance from Africa, birthing Calypso. For poet-philosopher-historian Kamau Brathwaite, even calypso’s later international emergence was wedded to crisis—particularly that of American imperialism.2 Calypso became the demotic glue of popular culture, an institutionalized folk music, the nation language of enslaved peoples and laborers. A music to galvanize and pacify.
NourbeSe Philip’s 1996 play Coups and Calypsos sets its rhythms to the military coup that erupted across Trinidad and Tobago in the summer of 1990. Jamaat al Muslimeen, a fringe group of Afro-Trinidadian Islamists, stormed the parliament and the national broadcaster’s headquarters, taking hostages that included the prime minister, A. N. R. Robinson, and declaring the overthrow of the government. Widespread looting wrecked Port of Spain, as the hostage situation lasted six days. Despite being shot and beaten, Robinson ordered the army to attack the insurgents until they surrendered in exchange for an amnesty agreement. By this time, twenty-four people had died, with many more injured. In uniting the “oral and aural” dimensions of speech, Philip revisits a time she spent under curfew with only the radio as an information source.3 Trinidad’s spasm of political violence was soon overshadowed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. “If sugar was still king,” one character in the play wryly observes, “we would be in a different position.”4Coups and Calypsos situates the Caribbean at the nexus of capital, racial stratification, and political Islam, centering a region often relegated to the periphery.
It may, of course,
be the other way around:
Columbus was discovered
by what he found.
―James Baldwin, “Imagination”
crossing dark waters.
Brahmin and Chamar alike.
At least with hope in their heart.
On the platter of the plantocracy
They were offered disease and death.
―Mahadai Das, “They Came in Ships”
Black Rock, Tobago. Philip establishes the scene, sparse and “simply furnished” (15). A one-bedroom beach house, with a porch facing the sea. Inside, hurt ricochets against the walls, alternately landing in the laps of our protagonists. Elvira and Rohan. Rohan and Elvira. The dramatis personae of a fractured, fifteen-year marriage. Elvira the returning doctor. Rohan the literature professor. Separated, the two are brought together by the claustrophobic urgency of the coup. Both pick at unhealed wounds, their relationship frayed by the Caribbean’s centuries-deep divisions of race, class, color, and caste. Gender, of course, is a given. In their native Trinidad, a curfew is instated. The radio blares public service announcements, repeatedly warning that “soldiers have orders to shoot on sight anyone breaking the curfew” (27). In Tobago, they skirt around a grief they can’t confront. Each comes from a people marked by the calamity of arrival. Arrival initiates a violent wrenching out of place and time. How did one’s ancestors arrive? Where did they depart from? Which ships carried them? What could they hold on to? What survived such arrivals? Arawak and Carib were first to encounter the catastrophe of arrival. In 1606, the earliest recorded shipment of enslaved Africans arrived in Trinidad, headed by the Dutch enslaver Isaac Duverne. Indian Arrival Day is a Trinbagonian public holiday commemorating the arrival of the first Indian indentured laborers on the ship Fatel Razack in 1845.
Slavery’s abolishment propelled the engine of indentureship. Sugar, coconut, cocoa, rubber. Plantations received waves of arrivals, calcifying hierarchies. Arrivants torn from Africa negotiated the landscape alongside those who, to invoke V. S. Naipaul, brought along an India they expected to “unroll like a carpet on the flat land.”5 In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul traces the pervasive ruin of uncertainty—a “mode of feeling” that has defined his entire life—to Trinidad’s colonial plantations and the immiseration of his forefathers.6 The Creole and the coolie, both born into the New World. Therein lie the differences that make, and unmake, a people. Across two acts, Philip reanimates these landings and estrangements through the domestic drama of Afro-Trinidadian Elvira and Indo-Trinidadian Rohan. Both are island children intimately familiar with another calamitous, profoundly Caribbean act: reinvention. They have had to invent a way of being together, despite sharing in a journey they did not begin together.
These are my ancestors, these are my people. They are yours too, if you want them.
―C. L. R. James, “The Making of the Caribbean Peoples”
The coup hermetically seals off the island. As a narrative device, it allows Philip to compress the history of a relationship into one fateful day. Deracinated from a Trinidad that insists on breaking their hearts, Elvira and Rohan are unable to reconcile with a homeland that both connects and divides them. Instead, they trade half-hearted cruelties. Yet even the historical contingency of their relationship, the social problem it poses, can’t snuff out desire. Philip is attuned to the barbed, unyielding nature of love, of Trinbagonian pasts and presents. Her characters struggle to extract themselves from a waterlogged, Caribbean love that, like history, pulls at the ankles and refuses to let go.
To love a country from afar is to be tortured by it. If it’s a choice between two hells, between sticking it out and self-imposed exile, then Elvira chooses “the English hell,” replacing one small island with another (63). Insisting that she will always be Trinidadian, Elvira still clings to her British passport. As she attempts to escape the coup, the soldiers at the airport manhandle her like a “common criminal,” turning her away (23). Philip depicts the havoc of the returnee’s classed expectations. Her opening scene is a seesaw of misrecognition. Elvira paces in medias res, facing the gallery. To Rohan, it’s a porch. Theirs is a struggle of nomenclature. Philip subtly introduces this first, meaningful point of divergence. They don’t agree on the names of things.
I don’t belong anymore than you do, Elvira.
If you wanted to you could.
We can still work it out.
You mean like therapy? Some things need more than therapy, Rohan. There are some pains, some injuries that only new histories will fix, and history is never new. (107)
Philip thrusts the couple’s private relationship into the “public arena in which the historical drama inherent in the brutal legacies of colonialism and racism in the Caribbean play themselves out” (11). As she reminds us in her introduction, the genesis of their story began a long, long time ago. Produced simultaneously in 1999 by Toronto’s Cahoots Theater and London’s Talawa, Coups and Calypsos articulates these legacies in two of the Caribbean diaspora’s hubs, even as the play’s themes destabilize the supposed consensus of diasporic experience. Audiences watch Rohan steer the conversation toward a common ground: an alienating England where uncomfortable Trinbagonian antagonisms are neutralized. England is “Wogland,” a place where Elvira and Rohan are united in their unbelonging (136). In her essay “Creole Criticism: A Critique,” Sylvia Wynter interrogates such evasion of difference; a feeble state-sponsored liberal pluralism sloshing about in a neocolonial mold. Wynter reiterates the sidestepped realities of the multiracial Caribbean: the “interpersonal cruelty” and “smoldering resentment” laid bare in Caribbean literature’s more incisive works that disentangle this “common alienation in a world in which love itself is alienated.”7 Western-forged solidarities fall apart in the Caribbean, where the doctrine “All ah we is one” quickly unravels. Rohan claims to be one of “those let loose in this part of the world to rattle around with roots.” Elvira counters that it’s only in the White man’s country that they can pretend to be the same; at home, “that lie becomes very clear” (109).
Rohan leans away from Trinidad’s conflicts, his family’s refusal to accept Elvira, his own adolescent shame at finding a Black girl beautiful, the taboo of “breaching caste” (80), and the child the couple lost to a miscarriage. Disowned, he is symbolically buried by his family for marrying a Black woman. Elvira is maddened by her family’s tolerance of the “coolie” boy she brings home. They don’t cut her off. This bruises her pride, since she craves the kind of mutual bad blood that would make her and Rohan equals, or at least equally adrift.
Plantation economies concretized the immaterial substance of race into an explicitly differentiated society. In the Caribbean, the historian and Trinidadian national patriarch Eric Williams thought slavery was “too narrowly identified with the Negro,” a flat racialization of a colorblind economic regime of unfree labor.8 The inert hatred of Africa and its descendants is hard to bear, let alone make sense of. It’s a kind of naturalized non-sense that organizes the Atlantic world. In refusing to swallow its antihuman distortions, the African indicts the world. This brazen act of psychic self-preservation can explode into mass, history-altering struggles for political self-determination. An interracial relationship is not necessarily a battleground, but Philip profoundly evokes the intense bouts of alienation faced by the African partner who enjoys no respite from the weight of anti-Black logics and erotics. Even love curdles. Philip constructs scenes of wistful domesticity and simmering bitterness, revealing the empathetic limits of characters who, having broken away from their respective turfs, still can’t find a way to forgive.
All we thinking about is to show this city, this island, this world, that we is people, not because we own anything, not because we have things, but because we is. We are because we is.
―Earl Lovelace, The Dragon Can’t Dance
Next door, Mrs. Samuels is unconcerned with the “coop.” Philip writes this character—an elderly Afro-Tobagonian woman—into history as the play’s social historian. A veteran of the 1937 labor strikes that emptied the oilfields and the sugar factories, Mrs. Samuels recounts the exploitative grind suffered by her late oil-worker husband. She describes the grueling marches during which the preacher and trade unionist Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler promised to “turn de British Empire upside down,” leading crowds of workers who, despite the hefty bounty on his head, refused to betray him (35). Recalling a time when a dark-skinned Black person could not work at a bank, Mrs. Samuels reaches back into the heady days of anticolonial zeal and Black Power. “Massa does come in all color,” she asserts, unimpressed with the entire, corrupt spectrum of political elites (40). Even in the coup-struck nineties, she doesn’t see much difference between the “yard fowl in Parliament” and the Muslimeen (38).
In 1970, mutinous soldiers almost toppled the government of Eric Williams. Repeated states of emergency were enforced, and the suppression of Black Power activists intensified. The National Union of Freedom Fighters, an armed Marxist guerilla group, was decimated. In later years, its former members could be found among the Muslimeen. Wringing comedy from failed revolution, Mustapha Matura’s 1991 play The Coup was inspired by these historical echoes. The ghosts of the Caribbean are restless. Or, as Mrs. Samuels puts it in her conversation with Elvira and Rohan, the terror “in dese islands” remains what “people doing to each other” (42).
A young African-American woman in the US army has Caribbean parents. During the Gulf War, her mother supported her presence in the Middle East to fight the Iraqis, because in her words, “it is better than being in the war-on-the-streets in the drug infested Bronx.” Her mother simultaneously recognized that if there is another revolution of some sort taking place in the Caribbean, or an invasion of the order of Panama or Grenada, technically, her children (she also has a son in the army) could be in a position of invading and killing their own kin, perhaps their own grandmother who still resides there, in the interest of some larger imperialistic goal.
—Carol Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject
Philip offers no easy answers. This is why Coups and Calypsos rewards revisits. Its interplay of calypso and civil unrest provokes a fugue state, one that Elvira is desperate to escape. But it isn’t always as easy as walking away. We can’t disavow the ugliness of relation. Whatever leaves through the front door tends to return through the back. In this sense, Philip builds toward a murky denouement. Elvira risks death to find her own people, the stage dimming as she leaves Rohan behind. “I want to learn to love the darkness,” she says (137). Recognizable to avid readers of Phillip’s work, there is a pelagic, Afrosporic sensibility to this embrace of loss as an inevitable, irreconcilable byproduct of life. Like the contamination of relation, it’s unavoidable.
Momtaza Mehri is a poet working across criticism, translation, antidisciplinary research practices, education, moving image, and radio. She is the former Young People’s Poet Laureate for London and Frontier-Antioch Fellow at Antioch University (Los Angeles). Her latest pamphlet, Doing the Most with the Least (2019), was published by Goldsmiths Press.
 M. NourbeSe Philip, “Fugues, Fragments, and Fissures—A Work in Progress,” Anthurium 3, no. 2 (2005): article 7, 3; http://doi.org/10.33596/anth.51.
 See Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “The African Presence in Caribbean Literature,” Daedalus 103, no. 2 (1974): 80.
 Phillip refers to this period spent under curfew in an interview with Room magazine. See Taryn Hubbard, “M. NourbeSe Philip on Genre, Performance, and Putting the Ego Out,” Room, 4 November 2015, https://roommagazine.com/m-nourbese-philip-on-genre-performance-and-putting-the-ego-out/.
 M. NourbeSe Philip, Coups and Calypsos: A Play (1996; repr., Toronto: Mercury, 2001), 113; hereafter cited in the text.
 V. S. Naipaul, “Two Worlds,” Nobel Prize Lecture, 7 December 2001; https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2001/naipaul/lecture/.
 V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (New York: Vintage, 1987), 52.
 Sylvia Wynter, “Creole Criticism: A Critique,” New World Quarterly (online) 5, no. 4 (1972): 3 https://newworldjournal.org/volumes/volume-v-no-4/creole-criticism-a-critique/3/.
 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), 7.