Dominica Calling: Q+A with Kelly Thomas, Madame Wob-Dwiyet (USA)

December 7, 2011

Words by Petra Valoma, photos courtesy of Kelly Thomas.

Dominica, one of the smallest islands in the Caribbean–and one of the least populated places anywhere–has a far-flung but tightly-connected diaspora of children all over the world. One of the many ways Dominicans honor their motherland and celebrate that heritage is with their international cultural pageant, a competition for the title of Madame Wob-Dwiyet, organized here in the US by the Dominican Emerald Organization of New Jersey.

This year’s Wob-Dwiyet winner is 23-year-old Kelly Thomas of New Jersey. As part of her winnings, she was flown to Dominica for the World Creole Festival and to perform her talent piece at the Madame Wob-Dwiyet show down there. A recent graduate of NYU, an artist, community organizer, educator and entrepreneur, Kelly is making major moves not just for herself but for her community and her culture as a whole. Having known her for a few years as a close friend and artistic collaborator, I was excited for the chance to sit down with her and get her thoughts on her work, her heritage and role as a cultural leader.

LargeUp: Where are you from?
Kelly Thomas: I was born and raised in East Orange, New Jersey. I had experiences in other parts of Jersey and I lived in Brooklyn for a really long time. Although growing up in New Jersey, in the hood, my household was Dominican. The island itself is the ninth least populated place on earth, so although we have a global network, it’s still a tight community. And for my relatives, my family growing up in a small village on a small island, that community aesthetic is just really important to our lifestyle– making sure that you are always checking in, everyone is raising the children, that kind of “it takes a village” mentality. So I lived in a little New Jersey-Dominica.

LU: How would you describe your motherland?
KT: The most important thing to know about Dominica is it’s the Nature Island. It is the Commonwealth of Dominica, not the Dominican Republic. It’s southeast of the Dominican Republic, not so far from the northeastern tip of South America. The island is a rain forest, more or less, so it’s just gorgeous. There are hot springs, there are waterfalls, there are rivers. At one point there was 365 rivers, one for every day of the year.

In terms of history, Dominica is really special because the original people of Dominica, formerly known as the Carib people, the Kalinago people–100 years after other bigger islands, and less forested islands, were already inhabited by colonizers and in the slave-trade heavily, the Kalinago people were still keeping invaders away from the island, and protecting it against colonization and the trade and these things. So it had a really unique opportunity to develop, and I think that still marks Dominican culture today. Dominica is a special place. It has a sense of freedom there, even now, that I haven’t felt anywhere else.

LU: How many times have you been there?
KT: Gosh, maybe about seven now. It just keeps calling me back. I definitely want to make more trips, and encourage other people to experience it. Because everywhere you turn, there’s a mountain, there’s a river, there’s people coming by with food. It’s a place that doesn’t have a big tourism industry, so because of that, it’s been preserved, the culture, the place. Especially in terms of visiting-culture, our person-to-person interaction, like just dropping by–no one goes hungry in Dominica.

LU: So tell us what is the Wob-Dwiyet contest all about?
KT: The Madame Wob-Dwiyet competition is a cultural pageant. It’s named after a very specific traditional Dominican dress. The Wob-Dwiyet refers to a long, large dress that is long-sleeved and has a rounded neck. It’s made in very specific ways, there’s a little petticoat under that; in presenting the dress you have to show all these things. It is a really prime example of Dominican culture and how it’s been created because the frame–the silhouette of the dress–is very French, very European. The styles and patterns of the fabric that the dress is made of are very African– bright colors and madras fabric, which I have on my head, is kind of a plaid that Nigerian women used to wear. The way that you move in the dress however, is very Caribbean. There’s a certain tilt that you have to take on, a certain grace, a very loose waist, but still very straight at the top. So you have polyrhythms actually, in the way that you need to move in it.

Outside of the island, there’s a competition that happens that happens on the East Coast [of the] United States, and there’s been one in Texas, and one in Canada actually. And being the winner for the US, the next step for me would be to enter the Dominican pageant, and see if I can do it again.

LU: Are you planning to do that?
KT: Why not? I love it. It’s so much fun, it’s so beautiful. I learn something new every time, meeting new Dominican people that I’ve never met before. And just seeing women, especially young women, teenage girls, who see what’s been happening on stage and get excited again about being Dominican, although they were born here, or they were born in Dominica and moved away a long time ago and they haven’t really been able to connect with the culture or their heritage in a while. They want to take pictures and get involved and that’s the most inspiring thing.

LU: Walk us through the competition, for someone who has never seen it…
KT: The contest begins with an introductory round, where you come and you create some original dress for that first introduction to the crowd. You present yourself, get them going, get them excited to see the rest of what you have to offer. You should incorporate some Dominican patois–that is similar to Haitian kreyol or a St. Lucian kreyol, its kind of a French and West African fusion language, and you just announce yourself, and say what village you’re representing. Dominica has ten parishes and those have corresponding villages, and my village is St. Joseph’s, so I was representing St. Joseph’s, and there were four other villages being represented in the pageant this time.

After that comes the talent round, where you have seven minutes to perform any original talent that you want to. And then is the Wob round, which is the big to-do, it carries the most points in this competition. It’s all about how you present in the dress. There are certain ways you have to literally carry the dress in your hands, you have to keep your hands in a certain position. There’s a lot of nuance in the way that you need to wear the dress, with grace and with class, and a certain amount of daintiness. The question and answer comes after the Wob round.

LU: Tell us a little bit about your talent piece.
KT: I’m actually really proud and excited about my talent. I did a short performance piece, a theater piece, about Mother, and Mother Country, as a concept. I interviewed three Dominican women–all in my family, two of them from my village. I asked them: What did you learn from your motherland? What do you teach your children now that you’re living elsewhere? And also asking them specifically about their mothers. What prayers did they teach you? What songs did they sing around the house? What were the things your mother really wanted to instill in you and how do those things inform how you live every day, outside of the island? The piece started with some traditional Dominican dance, called Belle, and then it progressed into a dream-like state where I was listening to all these different interviews. Essentially the idea being that I– as a character– was being tormented by different pushes to be more involved in my culture andthink about it everyday.

LU: Tell us a little bit more about you. Besides being Madame Wob-Dwiyet of the US, what is Kelly Thomas doing?
KT: Besides Madamery, as I like to call it, I am an artist and an educator and a community activist. So the work that I do is very much in line with what this pageant is about. Using art and culture to affect social change. I am working for an organization called the Continuum Project, where we do ancestry work with middle school students in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I’m also starting a business, called Hello Beautiful, in which I work with women and girls…about deconstructing beauty culture and constructing a personal sense of style and fashion and beauty, that is informed by culture and heritage.

In addition to her role as Madame Wob-Dwiyet and work with youth in The Continuum Project, Kelly performs with the activist theater ensemble Body Ecology and is a member of the artist collective Moxy Motion.