Glittering beaches and tropical landscapes are routinely splashed across television sets, swiftly whisking viewers away into the Caribbean sunset. Throughout the years, the Bahamas has been a darling destination for filmmakers all across the world seeking backdrops for million-dollar pictures. But an astonishingly small fraction of these pristine reels are produced by actual residents of the Bahamas. This fact has left some Bahamian screen artists feeling rather salty, as of late.
One group working to shake up the numbers is the production team for “Gippie’s Kingdom,” the first televised Bahamian soap opera. Marble Head Films and 12:01 Studios are gearing up to air their second season of their show, which weaves together complex plots, in an effort to expose taboo difficulties that are prevalent in Caribbean populations.
The show follows Everett Harrison Gibson ‘Gippie’, a middle-aged everyman trying to hold his clan together during a series of crises. Chigoze Ijeoma plays the flawed, but sympathetic title character. Also in the cast is Fanchon Dawkins, of “BTC Starmaker” fame. Dawkins plays Gippie’s eldest daughter, Monique, an insecure young woman whose shotgun marriage is beginning to fail.
The premiere episode on June 13, 2012 chronicled events that trail the heels of Gippie’s son, Junior (Arthur Maycock), lying in a coma from a near-fatal gunshot wound. Gippie’s life rapidly unravels as secrets and lies tumble around the small community.
The story was born when writer-director Dr. Ian Strachan entered a sabbatical he intended for a novel and came out with a TV script. “I wanted to tell the story of a typical family,” he said. From the beginning, authenticity was the name of the game. Strachan grew up in a culture that adored American soap operas like “Dallas” and “Peyton Place,” but never saw their own faces reflected on the screen. “To me, Bahamians are inhabiting an imaginary world which is not their own,” he said.
The soap opera avoids watered-down plot lines and vapid comedy, choosing instead to tackle some of the Caribbean’s toughest problems. Domestic violence and juvenile delinquency are a couple of the heavy topics that find life on the “Gippie’s” platform. One of the items crowning Strachan’s agenda is the Haitian-Bahamian immigration conflict, a struggle that hits home with thousands of people.
On the show, this reality is explored in the case of Evan, Gippie’s “outside son,” who is born of a Haitian maid and therefore has no rights to citizenship. Played by Jackson Petit, Evan is a bright boy who reacts to discrimination by making dangerous decisions. His spirited nature leads him to refuse speaking English in school, opting instead for Creole. Strachan created this polarizing character in the hopes that viewers will “see the humanity of the other.”
The high per capita murder rate on the islands is another topic Strachan concerns himself with. “My personal view is that we focus too often on the actual perpetrators of violent crimes without looking at the institutions that enable the perpetuation of criminality and violence in society,” he said. “And one of those is the weak judicial system.”
He spotlights these problems using the character Keith Brooks, played by actor Tony McCartney, a charismatic attorney who uses his talents to liberate criminals from the claws of the justice system. Despite this questionable occupation, he is elected to Parliament on the grounds that he will keep those very people off of the streets. “Keith Brooks is the typical, slimy, criminal attorney, ” McCartney said. “He has no conscience, no morals.”
Even more controversies are bubbling in Strachan’s cauldron for season two and three, including the island’s unjust gambling restrictions. But one topic that Strachan has been tentative about is that of rampant homophobia in the Caribbean culture. “I wasn’t inspired to do it in season one, I didn’t explore it in season two,” he said. “But now it’s painfully obvious to me that I’m avoiding it and I need to address it.”
All of these storylines come nearly as much of a surprise to the actors as they do to the audience because to retain the integrity of their performances, the cast is not made aware of what’s coming next in the script.
Strachan wants to keep the stories going for at least ten seasons, but fundraising has proven to be a tough task. They have secured some respected sponsors, but as is the case when money enters the discussion, rejection has come more often than not. “Companies are used to doing the same thing that they did last year,” said Strachan. “You hope to try to find a way to persuade marketing managers who are afraid of making mistakes, afraid of pissing off their bosses, to invest in your show.” Convincing businesses to part with their cash has not been easy. Even with their current success, Strachan believes they have only tapped into 20 or 30 percent of the sponsorship dollars they need to have.
For him, a primary motivating factor in making “Gippie’s Kingdom” work is the desire to help build a support system that will allow Bahamian film artists to make a living from their craft. Because in the Bahamas, earning an income from film work is anything but easy. Cultural production, particularly the arts derived from oral tradition, is a beloved Caribbean strength, but the Bahamas has yet to find significant ways to monetize artistic talent.
“I think there are structural things the government in the Bahamas could do to further incentivize and encourage this industry,” said Strachan. “Because right now, young filmmakers are trying to eke out an existence, while at the same time, trying to find the means and the wherewithal to produce films. And so I think something has to be done to give them somewhat of a competitive advantage.” But Strachan believes the advent of digital technology will shift the odds within the next ten or fifteen years.
As it stands for now, the actors’ contribution to “Gippie’s Kingdom” is largely a labor of love. They all have external occupations that buy the bacon, but are drawn to the passion of the stage. “They all love acting,” said Strachan. “But they’ve got to eat and we can’t feed them, yet.”
Aside from a paycheck, the absence of decent capital eliminates the chance of luxuries for the cast and crew. Because they supplanted a built set with found locations, the technical aspects of shooting were challenging. “We didn’t have cooperation from the police to block off streets and that sort of thing,” said Strachan. “We really did it in a guerrilla sort of way.” But the police weren’t hot on their trails, fortunately. “We were pretty much able to escape detection, usually,” he said with a laugh.
Dawkins recalled how the quick changes and summer heat took a toll on her beauty. “Hair, hair, hair,” She joked. “As [black women], you know, we have to have our hair done!” Despite such issues, there is a sense of perseverance amongst the “Gippie’s” crew. “There were times when it was really rough,” said McCartney. “But we made it happen.”
McCartney believes the close-knit company at the “Gippie’s” shoots have made the dedication worthwhile. “You get to see the passion that you share with other people and you get to relate to them… And [I] realize, I can’t be crazy because there’s so many other people like me out there.” Dawkins also sees working on the show as a pleasurable experience. “I feel like were just a big family now and it sounds cliché, but that’s what it really feels like,” she said.
The team members seek to lend bright attitudes to future seasons. “We learned some lessons from a production standpoint in the first season,” said Strachan. “But overall, I was really happy with the visual quality [and] we have superseded that for season two. I think with the budget and the resources we had, we did pretty damn good.”
For season two, the production team has improved on the sound and lighting quality and look forward to gaining access to a versatile set, where they can shoot in a completely controlled environment. They are also planning to reduce the length of the overall shooting schedule, in order to produce episodes more quickly. The ultimate goal is that “Gippie’s Kingdom” will one day see global syndication and help bring Bahamian entertainment to the forefront of the world stage.
“You ask the average person where’s the Bahamas, they don’t know,” said Dawkins. “People think it’s in Africa, people think it’s in Jamaica! I really want this to be seen all over the place so that people can understand that Bahamian life isn’t just…clinging to a vine or drinking out of coconuts,” said Dawkins. “We have real problems, just like the rest of the world.”
So far, the cast has been galvanized by overwhelming support for the project. “People just run up to me, hugging me, supporting me, and appreciating the show,” said Dawkins. Ijeoma also spoke on the feedback they have received. “Everything has been very positive, even though we do recognize there are improvements to be made to the show,” he said. “It’s a very gratifying and rewarding feeling that you’ve touched the lives of so many people.”
Season Two of Gippie’s Kingdom premieres Thursday, January 23rd at 8PM, via Caribbean cable networks. To tune in outside of the Bahamas, visit the Gippie’s Kingdom website for streaming videos.