Theatre Reviews

Theatre Reviews

Ghett Out

Unless you live in a large uptown cave (you know, the kind that defaces a hillside to park a Mercedes), then you’ve heard of Shebada—the slim-built, hair-dyed dynamo of roots theatre.  No?  Here’s your primer.

Roots theatre, the long-suffering bastard child of West African storytelling and English farce, has finally come of age.  And its adulthood is being ushered by one company.  Over the last few years, Stages Productions has used administrative and marketing savvy to turn their handful of contract players into highly profitable household names. Shebada and his peers work six nights a week and twice on Sundays, playing to full houses at Green Gables Theatre, as well as auditoriums, hotels and schools around the island, all at $1200 a head.

Given such compelling math, the literature doesn’t get much attention.  Stages plays are, at worst, thematically disjointed, sexually gratuitous, visually monotonous and overlong—symptoms of poor writing and direction.  But in Ghett Out, Shebada’s latest romp, the peculiar alchemy of script and improvisation, of audience and performer, and of comedy and commentary is one step closer to gold.

Written by Michael Denton, directed by B L Allen, Ghett Out takes place in a bullet-prone ghetto lane (you know, the kind that you’d be afraid to park a Mercedes), home to three tenants—illegal vendors Shebada and Barbara (Maylynne Lowe), and fallen Maude (Abigail Grant), who used to have a house, a car and a husband.  Her plight provides just enough story for us to enjoy the extended comic routines.

In Ghett Out, a coherent story makes for a richer poor-man’s tale

And what joy it is (if you can sit for three hours on a metal chair).  The Stages brand of theatre, at best, echoes vaudeville of a century ago, with its flat sets, broad types, dirty jokes and open invitation for audience participation.  Luke Ellington and Maxwell Grant play policemen Macka and Run Tings, handling hijinks and managing malapropisms with true bumbling perfection.  Ellington is the Abbott to Grant’s Costello, and like any comic duo they are at their best when misunderstanding one another.

The rest of the Ghett Out cast is serviceable—Abigail Grant, Junior Williams and Orville Hall stand up without standing out.  Maylynne Lowe is the latest high-profile crossover from the New Kingston theatre circuit, no doubt drawn by the fat paycheck.  Hers is the misfortune of being Powell in the age of Bolt; there’s room for only one lithe, histrionic diva on the Stages stage.

So we arrive where we started—Shebada.

If most of the company’s success can be attributed to business acumen, the remainder must go to the talent of their stars, especially one Keith Ramsey.  Pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell (incidentally, Jamaican-born) says the difference between mediocrity and genius in any field is 10,000 hours of practice.  As Shebada, Ramsey is racking up the hours, and all that practice has made him very funny.

One of the hardest skills for an actor to master is the spontaneous reaction; Ramsey does it effortlessly, creating on-the-fly responses to heckling patrons while keeping one ear in the scene.  Though young, his experience as a comedian shows in his intuitive knowledge of  what the audience sees.  The night the Gleaner attended Ghett Out, a patron made fun of Ramsey’s get-up as he crossed the stage.  Ramsey paused, without looking at either his clothes or the heckler.  He simply stood there, to the roaring delight of the crowd, and then resumed his movement.  Whatever Stages is paying him, they should double it.

The true genius of Ghett Out, and by extension the entire Stages enterprise, however, is the way it taps into our collective psyche.  Sure, a philandering husband is comedy, but in a country with so many single mothers, it’s also a tragedy.  Sure, a trigger-happy officer is funny, but in a time when our real policemen kill in cold blood, it’s also cathartic.  We don’t just want to laugh; we need to laugh.  In this way, Stages is almost providing a public service, a sort of ritual confessional where we can purge our sins and then take a route taxi home.

The play’s title draws from our de facto national motto, put simply by Run Tings—take what you can, and get out.  Roots theatre is more profitable than ever; by some back-of-the-envelope math, Stages pulls in a cool $1,000,000 each week.  As the audience got out of Ghett Out, turning into citizens once more, they had to pass the black Mercedes parked by the door.  Here’s hoping Stages helps us climb our mountain, instead of defacing yet another hillside.

Theatre Reviews

Backstage

A seasoned playwright throws his characters into onerous circumstances, forces them to make difficult decisions, and then watches them fight to survive.  This is true for tragedy and comedy; the only difference is whether the conflict is played for pathos or laughs. The tragedy of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (Will Oedipus discover who killed his father and clear his own name?) and the comedy of Patrick Brown’s Puppy Love (Will Dick escape his teenaged lover and clear his own name?) share the same root—a character facing long odds.

The downfall of Karl Hart’s fourth play is that the odds aren’t long enough.  In Backstage, a fictional cast and crew take a show from script to stage.  We see a reading of the script, a number of rehearsals, some dressing-room undressing, and segments of the inscribed show, Just Soups.  But we never get a sense that the show is truly endangered.  It’s not that Mr Hart doesn’t provide obstacles, but that the obstacles are too easily overcome.  The characters worry, but we never do.  The whole thing trundles implacably towards opening night.  Given the many obstacles Mr Hart must have overcome to get Backstage on the stage, this is a minor tragedy in and of itself.

Backstage combines two potent tropes.  The first is the let’s-put-on-a-show plot device, which usually lends a natural momentum to the story, as time ticks away.  (Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney launched careers on these stories.)  The second, related trope is the use of a play-within-a-play, which allows for self-reflexivity.  (Hamlet recreates his father’s murder in a play to enrage his uncle, and Michael Frayn’s hilarious 1982 play Noises Off features three failed performances of its farce-within-a-farce.)

To succeed, the play within the play needs to be more of a failure

Backstage squanders the potential of both techniques.  One of the better scenes has the actors adjusting their performances according to the director’s shouted instructions.  A funny idea, but Mr Hart only finds a handful of punchlines, leaving dozens more to waste.  And throughout, we are left to guess, infer or remember how much time remains, when an overt indicator (a calendar? repetition?) would hint at impending disaster.

The real actors, left without guidance by their real director Nicole Williams (in her debut), do what actors do when left to themselves—anything they want.  Thus Brian Johnson reprises his over-enunciated anger from Glass Routes; Gracia Thompson reprises her affectations from Smile Orange; Peter Heslop reprises Peter Heslop from any of his last several roles; and Nyanda Cammock watches them while looking good.  This is mostly Ms Williams’ fault, not theirs.  In fact, all four are so naturally likable on the stage the result is still watchable.  Thompson is dignified, Cammock and Johnson have chemistry and Heslop’s face is a comic study.

So instead of the “double serving of exceptional theatre” promised in the programme, Backstage feels half as fascinating as it could have been, with missed opportunities in the script, direction and characterizations.  But there is yet a bit of drama to unfold.  Having thrown his work into onerous circumstances, and been forced to make difficult decisions (one performance was already cancelled), Mr Hart now has to watch Backstage fight to survive.

Theatre Reviews

Appropriate Behaviour

Unlike people, art is best loved conditionally.  That’s because the average person is confusing but ultimately redeemable; the average play, not so much.  Brian Heap, who loves theatre, applies his own conditions—if the writer has stood the test of time, and if the script has gathered acclaim, and if the actors are experienced (and if they’ll work for free), he’ll make a go of it.

This has led to a number of entertaining, edifying productions—Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play, before that A R Gurney’s Love Letters, before that Yasmina Reza’s Art, and so on.  All famous writers, all celebrated works, all with established local actors (often the same ones).  Mr Heap’s latest endeavour, Appropriate Behaviour, seems to fit his pattern.  The scribe is Barbara Gloudon, whose deteriorating National Pantomimes nevertheless make her our most prominent living playwright.  The stage is stuffed full of talent, old and new.  What’s missing from Mr Heap’s criteria?  Oh, right.  The acclaim.

There are two reasons Appropriate Behaviour remains unburdened by recognition—one financial, one functional.  The script has eleven characters, making it unproduceable in the Jamaican market.  No one can afford to pay eleven actors, so no one has staged the play for two decades.  Now that Mr Heap has tried, he has come up against Ms Gloudon’s jellyfish script, with strands of plot and character floating about everywhere.

Brian Heap attracts talent, but is unwilling to display the extent of his own

Appropriate Behaviour is set in a typical Jamaican office.  If you work in an office, you will recognize the narcoleptic environment, where management is overstaffed, the ledgers matter less than the lunch menu, and no one does any work (anyone who does is either promoted or ostracized).  But Ms Gloudon overpopulates her script—four grunts, two janitors, two consultants, a secretary, a manager and whatever Miss Patience is—without turning them into people or throwing them into a sustained conflict.

As a result, the characters talk a lot but the story goes nowhere.  Two co-workers get involved (against company policy), get spotted, but do not get uncovered.  Another two spend their time baiting a third about his sexuality, with no lasting consequence.  This might be chalked up to the playwright’s relative inexperience at the time, except Ms Gloudon’s last pantomime, Pirate Jack, was even more inchoate.

But the actors overcome the flawed writing.  Mr Heap gifted himself an embarrassment of riches (and a few embarrassments) in Appropriate Behaviour.  Here’s a quick rundown.  Nadean Rawlins, a Heap favourite, is so consistently compelling she should steal Nadia Khan’s Actor Boy statue as a public service.  Christopher McFarlane is the dramatic equivalent of a can of Red Bull—his explosive energy lifts the entire show, if only temporarily.  Marsha-Ann Hay, Maurice Bryan, Marguerite Newland and Melward Morris are all competent.

Rishille Bellamy-Pelicie and Jean-Paul Menou are good actors that choose inappropriate behaviours—she should walk more naturally and he should talk more naturally.  Althea Gordon-Clennon is the reverse—authentic, but not theatrical enough.  The cast lacks a unified tone; in truth, the whole show smells a bit under-rehearsed.

Which brings us to the main reason Appropriate Behaviour falls short—Brian Heap’s maddening unwillingness to extend himself.  His productions should be subtitled “Just Enough”—just enough set, just enough costumes, just enough rehearsal, just enough resources to make it through.  He seems more fussy about which play he directs than which direction the play takes.  The man is knowledgeable, tasteful, trusted and talented.  All he needs is Christopher McFarlane’s boundless energy.

Granted, he operates without grants on a shoestring budget.  All the more reason, then, to obsess over the particular shoestring.  There’s little excuse for a character anachronistically referring to using shillings thirty years ago.  All of the missteps in Appropriate Behaviour could have been reduced or eliminated with additional time and care.  Brian Heap, who loves theatre, knows that better than anyone.  The empty seats at the Philip Sherlock Centre must hurt him.  So, as the paying public, let’s lay out our own conditional love—if the writer has taken her time, and if the script has gathered followers, and if the actors are excited, and if the director has tried his hardest, we’ll make a go of it.

Appropriate Behaviour runs until May 16.

Theatre Reviews

Tick Tock

The dramatic arts haven’t been this exciting in 25 years.

The Independence generation—Charles Hyatt, Louise Bennett, Trevor Rhone—had history on their side.  Fate gave them their mandate—the country was new, and we needed an identity.  They told us who we were.  But by the mid-1980s, what was new had grown old. The generation they inspired—Cathi Levy, Oliver Samuels, Owen Ellis—had their own ideas.  The country had changed.

This clash of ideas was the best thing to happen to our art since the British left.  Cathi gathered her Little People.  Oliver found himself At Large.  Not to be left behind, Trevor Rhone wrote The Game and Milk and Honey.

Now another quarter-century has passed.  Oliver’s posse is passe.  All that remains of their artistic explosion are a few scattered ASHEs.  New faces are here—Amba Chevannes, Michael Holgate, Teniele Warren—with new ideas.  The country has changed again.  Amba wrote Dinner with Eleanor.  Michael’s musical, Glass Routes, just finished its run.  Not to be left behind, Owen Ellis has written and directed Tick Tock.

Tick Tock is an experiment that eschews character and narrative.  Instead, an ensemble of twelve (hours on a clock?) plays different Jamaican archetypes while reciting long-form poetry.  Set in the ruins of downtown Kingston, in a nameless, placeless ghetto, the performers give voice to our most dispossessed fellow citizens.  The poetry examines the forces at work in their lives—the intimacy of poverty, the violence of despair.

Ellis explores the poetry of poverty and the drama of despair

This newspaper trumpets the nation’s murder tally on its front pages without emotion or explanation.  Ellis tries to provide both, putting faces on both the killer and the killed.  In one sketch, a street domino game turns ugly when a player snubs the local don.  The don responds by dragging the man into an alley and executing him, ensuring the respect and allegiance of everyone else.

Ellis captures the tense community of the inner-city, where your best friend, your ex-boyfriend, your mother and your rival are all within a rock-stone‘s throw.  Arguments flare and subside—another sketch has two women fighting over the resident casanova—but life goes on, as it must.

In these and other moments, Ellis engages, but Tick Tock stops short of success.  While the show is interesting to listen to, it is boring to look at.  The set consists of four battered two-storey facades, but they are positioned shoulder-to-shoulder in a line.  The performance loses one of its three dimensions for movement, because the stage has no depth.  The facades seem hastily painted and graffitied, without an artist’s eye for evocative details.  And Ellis doesn’t explore spatial possibilities—much more could have been done with the upstairs windows he built.

But we must distinguish between the experiment and the social scientist.  Tick Tock is a mixed bag (with a second half that needs reworking), sometimes compelling, sometimes not.  If you are a patron of the arts, go see it.  If you want the best use of two hours and two Nannies, go see something else.  Owen Ellis, however, is a great investment.  As the younger generation of artists takes over, expect more parting shots from this valuable veteran.  Remember, things won’t be this exciting for another 25 years.

Theatre Reviews

Slim Actress

Artists, by definition, take their private lives into public spaces.  Public spaces are terrifying because they tend to attract the public.  Once the lights go up, that public—unerring, unforgiving, unknown—becomes a jury.  Meanwhile, the artist awaits the verdict, worrying she is too light- or dark-skinned, too unrefined or educated, too green or dated—a thousand ways of not being good enough.

Thus the artist thirsts for validation.  Affection.  Applause.  Awards.  Anything so she can believe in herself.  But there’s a thin line between believing in yourself and believing yourself.  Believing in yourself is thinking you can be great.  Believing yourself is thinking you already are.

Sabrena McDonald is one of the most talented under-30 thespians working in Jamaica, and one of the few capable of carrying a one-woman show.  But she does not carry Slim Actress, which had its only performance on Saturday night, and the reason lies in that thin line.

First, form.  A one-person show is almost impossible to pull off, because that one person must hold our attention, broken only once for intermission, for two hours.  There is no one to prompt a forgotten line, no one to rescue a flat moment, no one to elicit a raw emotion.  Failure is a clear and present danger.  Amongst the myriad terrors of performance, it stands alone—it is the King Kong of acting.  Like the beast, it is best approached with great care, great experience and a great idea (see Trevor Rhone’s Bellas Gate Boy—he was 62 and believed in himself).

Amongst the myriad terrors of performance, the one-person show stands alone

Ms McDonald, brave as she is, lacks two out of three.  Despite the help of some experienced hands (Trevor Nairne lent direction, Michael Holgate lent movement), Slim Actress has no unifying theme.  The material is a motley collection of monologues, poetry and dance written by the artist over a period of years, some of which gathered local awards, including one from the Prime Minister.  Not too shabby, but not too coherent, either.  (Teneile Warren masked the arbitrariness of the pieces in her showcase last year by sharing onstage duties with a half-dozen friends.)

Second, tone.  Slim Actress is, as the program reminds us, “a celebration of 18 years as a theatre artist.”  Note to Ms McDonald: When you are only 30, do not celebrate the past eighteen years.  Work your ass off—humbly, preferably—and hope like hell you’ll be around eighteen years hence.  Nobody cares what you did at 12, unless you can make us care.

But there is much to like about Slim Actress, and the slim actress behind it.  For one thing, she almost pulls it off.  In ’99 and a Half’, an older woman wrestles with a real problem—whether her life qualifies for the local version of the afterlife.  McDonald is at her most relaxed, which allows her to find a comfortable rhythm—the words land on the ear like fallen leaves on grass.  In ‘Better Off a Boy’, a businesswoman shrugs off the self-imposed shackles of her father’s gaze and workplace testosterone.  McDonald is at her most honest, which allows her to be effective—the real-life loss of her father writ large.

Ms McDonald has range, which is shorthand for saying she can play both a fundamentalist and an atheist, both uptown and downtown.  And she has energy, which will mature into presence.  She is a highly valuable commodity—female, black, driven, talented—with all the right tools.  In other words, she is perfectly positioned to grow into greatness.  But, unless she puts down the Prime Minister’s award and reinstates a preposition, she won’t quite pull it off.

Theatre Reviews

The Plumber

Roots plays have a bad reputation.  Theatre practitioners quietly shun them.  Theatre critics quietly illegitimize them.  Theatre patrons quietly avoid them.  In polite society, they are decried—quietly—as simple, base entertainments for the hoi polloi.  Not exactly an open-minded attitude, but whatever, right?  To each his quiet own.

Enter Stages Productions, the powerhouse behind a line of smash-hit roots plays stretching from Negril to Morant Bay, including Bashment Granny, Money Worries, The X-tortionistz, Serious Business (now playing the North coast), Passa Passa Daily (now playing the East coast) and The Plumber (now playing in Kingston).  Their runaway success (three concurrent shows!), and their piles of money have made polite society grow increasingly impolite.

Gentlemen, dig your trenches.  The class war is on, and the opening skirmish may well have been February 9, when Simon Crosskill interviewed Stede Flash (co-director of The Plumber) on Smile Jamaica.  Abandoning journalistic ethics, Mr Crosskill asked Mr Flash whether he ever thought about doing ‘serious’ theatre, like Shakespeare, and capped a one-sided evisceration with the bullet, “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I see [a roots play].”

Maybe this explains the frigid rains ending our islandwide drought.

What Mr Crosskill evidently doesn’t know (and will hurt him) is that old Willie ‘The Bard’ Shakespeare got a bunch of friends together, built a theatre in the capital and wrote some raunchy comedies for the hoi polloi.  Titus AndronicusThe Taming of the ShrewMerchant of Venice.  When he got rich, he stopped.  It took three hundred years for him to be reinterpreted as high art.

So Paul O Beale (writer of The Plumber), who got a bunch of friends together, built a theatre in the capital and writes raunchy comedies is in pretty good company.  All he has to do is wait three hundred years.

The class war is on, and it’s not pretty—but then, neither are roots plays

But don’t celebrate yet.  The Plumber is not The Comedy of Errors, just a comedy with errors.  And watching it invoked an entirely different popular theatre with a bad reputation—the American minstrel show.  The parallels are strong enough to worry your inner sociologist.

The Plumber is, ostensibly, about a policeman suspecting and then uncovering his wife in an affair.  Never mind that.  It’s really about bringing some familiar characters onto the stage, characters from prior Stages shows, presented so as to blur the line between person and persona—Garfield ‘Bad Boy Trevor’ Reid, Michael ‘Stringbeans’ Nicholson, Everaldo ‘Stamma’ Creary and Andrea ‘Delcita’ Wright.  These performers are not in the show; they are the show.  The play is best understood as a pretext for Stamma and Delcita to run through comedy routines.

The minstrel show was the same—with stock characters like Mr Bones, Mr Tambo, Jasper Jack and Zip Coon thrown into comic misadventures.  Originally played by whites in blackface, the art form became a lucrative income stream for black performers willing to blacken up.  (Stages Productions reportedly pays twice as much as other local troupes.)  The best performers earned celebrity with blacks, amongst whom minstrel shows were wildly popular.  They became inextricably associated with their roles, just as no one knows who Keith Ramsey is, but everyone knows Shebada (Stages’ biggest star).

Not enough?  Here’s more.  Both switch between playing off each other and directly with the audience.  Both entertain with sung comic verse.  Both employ sets that are little else than glorified backdrops.  Both rely heavily on physical comedy and one-liners.  Both use male actors for some of the female roles.  And here’s the punchline to the gut—in The Plumber, Andrea Wright, a beautiful dark-skinned woman, blackens up to become Delcita.

Is this a moral death knell for The Plumber, for Stages Productions, or for roots theatre?  No.  It is merely the teething pains of a recently reborn people.  Black minstrelsy thrived from the American civil war onwards, as whites found new forms of oppression, and blacks new forms of expression.  Our nation, in its latest incarnation, is not even fifty years old.  As plantocracy gives way to democracy, with much kicking and screaming from polite society, the hoi polloi are having a good laugh.

In time, the blackface will disappear, revealing the black faces underneath.  The best part?  Simon Crosskill won’t be around to see it.

Theatre Reviews

Puppy Love

One is a fluke, two a coincidence, three a trend.  For those keeping count, Patrick Brown’s newly remounted play, Puppy Love, is (at least) the fourth recent Jamaican production to feature a May-December romance.  (That’s where one partner is way younger than the other, like Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.)  The other three are Dream Merchant by Adrian Nelson, Me and Mi Chapsie by Aston Cooke and White Witch by Jane Crichton.

In Brown’s plays, people don’t stay true to themselves or each other

Differences?  Those three featured older women in trysts with younger men; Puppy Love flips the genders.  Dream Merchant and White Witch didn’t focus on the age disparity, while Me and Mi Chapsie and Puppy Love, as their titles foretell, do.  But collectively they beg a question.  Why are we, or at any rate our playwrights, preoccupied with this particular taboo?

Before we try to answer, let’s talk about Puppy Love and its fulsome foursome.  Oliver Samuels (busy working abroad for the past few months) and Dahlia Harris (busy working here at home—she was the older woman in Chapsie), portray Dick and Denise, a couple on the cusp of sixty.  They’ve been together exactly 30 years.  And they look it.  In behaviour and appearance, Dick and Denise are instantly recognizable as every comfortable middle-aged couple you know.  She has bridge on Saturdays; he has dominoes on Sundays.  They’re happily married, which in Patrick Brown’s world means they’re miserable.

Dick’s best friend, business partner and confidante is Harry (Earle Brown), whose 20-year-old daughter, Karen (Natalee Cole), has a jones for her Uncle Dick.  Her pursuit, and her uncle’s resistance, provide the plot and the punchlines.  It’s a fun and fast two hours, thanks to a controlled performance from Mr Samuels, agile direction from Trevor Nairne and astute writing from Mr Brown that keeps the audience one step ahead of the characters.

Mr Samuels enjoys an enduring popularity with the Jamaican people, as evidenced by patrons’ applause as the show began.  That appreciation must taste bittersweet to the old comedian, for it underscores the paradox of celebrity—as it liberates, it also confines.  The people who fill the Pantry Playhouse want to see the man from their television sets—the smiling man from Oliver at Large and those cheese ads—not the lonely hardworking husband, Dick.  So the former Pantomime actor aims for a sensible compromise in Puppy Love, delivering the dialogue on its merit, with only the occasional indulgence to his over-familiar persona.

Still, he has an intuitive sense of pace and enough experience to slow down potent moments.  Ms Harris makes a capable straight woman to Oliver’s funny man, suitably unaware of her double entendres.  Denise and Marilyn (her character from Chapsie) share an income bracket, a wardrobe and a lack of fulfillment, so Ms Harris borrows from one role for the other, using the same vocal register and class affectation.  Likely, this says more about the roles available to Ms Harris than about her creativity, because her choices in Puppy Love ring true.

Earle Brown holds his own as the distraught father.  Ms Cole, however, has the misfortune of acting opposite the veteran Mr Samuels, and her relative inexperience and inexpressiveness shows.  On the plus side, she provides an opportunity to admire the outstanding set designed by Patrick Brown.

Since Puppy Love has both unity of action and unity of place (the missing Aristotelian unity being time), Brown, a civil engineer by training, throws undivided attention to creating Dick and Denise’s uptown townhouse.  Kitchen, dining area, living room and den fit like jigsaw pieces in a palette of deep red, light green and beige.  Stairs evoke an upper floor.  Architectural angles imply a hallway, a patio and the rest of the house.  The space is aesthetically inviting, theatrically useful and, best of all, looks like people live in it.  Too often, set dressers underestimate how much junk it takes to make the fake look real—here, the bar has shelves, the shelves have liquor, and the liquor has empty glasses waiting on it.  Superb.

That’s right, you’re still waiting on an answer, aren’t you?  Our blend of poverty, paternalism and prayer might be a fertile environment for such relationships.  Taboos tend to thrive in poor, religious cultures.  Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that our theatre season traditionally begins the day after Christmas.  May December bring May-December once more.

Theatre Reviews

Me and Mi Chapsie

Call it the Theory of the Performing Society.

Where there is an unexplained phenomenon, a theory is born.  And our country begs for explanation.  Geographically, we’re a dot, so small on most world maps that we could be mistaken for a gravy stain.  Our capital city, home to more than a third of our people, is a dot within a dot.

Ethnographically, we are the Colosseum.  Since independence some half-century ago, we have been manufacturing cultural luminaries—people with an international footprint, like Louise Bennett, Sonny Bradshaw, Trevor Rhone and Peter Tosh.  In the era of Usain Bolt, that footprint has only gotten larger.  How can a small, relatively young island nation have such a big impact on the world stage?

The Performing Society—we’re all just playing a part

Thinking of the world as a stage is a good place to start.  In Aston Cooke’s world, to be Jamaican is to be a performer.  His new play, Me and Mi Chapsie, is a humourous treatise on that idea.

The chapsie is Donald (Everaldo Creary), a deejay in a popular inner city dancehall.  Popular, that is, amongst the blue-collar, red-haired crowd.  The woman he belongs to, divorced ad executive Ms Marilyn Simpson, lives many stone throws away in Norbrook, where they don’t really throw stones at all.  They meet when Marilyn gets invited by her co-worker to a party in downtown Kingston.

Despite the odds and the odd looks, they like each other.  They just don’t know how to show it without incurring suspicion and derision.  She uses her money, and he uses his… well, more private assets.  Marilyn, past her prime, worries he sees her as a chequebook, and Donald wants to be more than an appendage.

Within this context, Cooke, along with director Michael Nicholson, exposes Jamaican identities as the prepackaged behaviours that they are.  In the first scene, Marilyn’s domestic help, Cheryl (Carlene Taylor), shows her the walk, talk and attitude she needs to fit in downtown.  Because it is an act, it can be taught.  Keeping up appearances figures large in other scenes.  Marilyn is chastised by her co-worker, Janice (Marsha Campbell) about her new relationship—because to Janice, it doesn’t look right.  Marilyn and Donald fight over his clothes, now that his social position—his role—has changed.  “The important thing,” she says, “is to act the part, and look the part, and everyone will believe you.”

Last Sunday, when The Gleaner attended, an unplanned power outage vindicated Cooke’s viewpoint.  Thrown into darkness, leads Harris and Creary paused, then left the stage, waiting for the real world to retreat once more.  But a young man from the audience stepped to the front, where, dimly lit by a dozen cell phones, he entertained the rest of us with impromptu dance and rhyme.  He was rewarded with appreciative applause.  That’s what happens in a Performing Society.

Theatre can be a most unforgiving art, because it relies heavily on the physicality of its imperfect practitioners.  And when sex is in the script, as in Me and Mi Chapsie, even more so.  Dahlia Harris has some of her curves in the wrong places to be a cougar, and Everaldo Creary, though muscular, is a bit too small to ooze testosterone.  But what these two actors lack in looks, they account for with talent and chemistry.  They pepper their onstage affair with the kind of believable affection and bodily comfort that only comes from hard work and mutual trust.  That’s rare, and they deserve kudos for it.

Taylor and Campbell are also convincing, although their characters have less to do.  However, that doesn’t stop Danar Royal, as Donald’s best friend, Sean, from stealing most of the scenes he’s in, with his improbably slender frame, expressive eyes, and of-the-moment dance moves.  The party of five work well together—Creary and Royal are twice as effective when sharing the stage.

Technical aspects were less impressive, with a set that did not adequately differentiate a nightspot from an ad agency.  Light and sound design were lacking—much more could have been done to create the visual and aural environment of the dancehall, which felt empty and limp.  In a cramped theatre like the Pantry Playhouse, Nicholson should make patrons imagine—through the magic of the stage—what time, money and space cannot provide.

But it’s really not for a lone theatre critic to say, is it?  The beautiful upside to living in Kingston is that only the strong, the determined and the gifted survive.  If Aston Cooke plays his part well, long after the rest of the world forgets, applause will ring out from the dot in the dot on the map.  That’s what happens in a Performing Society.

Me and Mi Chapsie runs Wednesdays to Sundays.

Theatre Reviews

PSSST!/dark diaspora

New York has The Juilliard School.  New York has Tisch School of the Arts.  New York has LaGuardia Arts (of Fame fame).  London has the University of the Arts.  London has the Royal College of Art.  London has the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Kingston has the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

You could read that as a punchline—New York and London, cultural behemoths with 8 million people each, but Kingston, ha! Or you could read it with pride—That’s right!  All major trading cities have great art, great artists, and schools to create them! Your response depends partly on what you think of Kingston as a city, and partly on what you think of Edna Manley as a school.

Edna Manley College is uniquely positioned to train our young thespians

Let’s talk about the latter.  Last weekend, Edna Manley closed its double-bill production of PSSST! and dark diaspora [ sic], two short performance pieces.  They defy brief description, but here’s an attempt.  The first piece, PSSST!, was a series of skits and monologues centred around male/female interaction, developed mostly from the actors’ actual experiences.  It was directed and choreographed by Neila Ebanks as “an experiment in a physical way of acting.” The second, dark diaspora, was an amorphous student presentation of dub poetry written and directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, the artist currently in residence at the college.

Ron Steger built a spare, practical but attractive set to house both pieces.  Other technical aspects—sound, light—were functional and competent.  The student actors, bless their hearts, were bright-eyed and full of earnest energy.  Shayne Powell and Joanna Johnson both grabbed attention thanks to raw stage presence.

But the twin productions were let down by their architects.  The segments in PSSST! were uneven and, at times, overloaded with stimuli.  When the students recited poetry by Teneile Warren and Samuel Gordon, the words flew by faster than the audience could process them.  The opening segment, which placed the actors amongst the raked audience, was diminished by images projected on the upstage wall—the only way to see everything was to whip your head back and forth like a garden sprinkler.  And what other way to act is there besides “a physical way?”  All acting is physical.  If Neila Ebanks meant something other than the redundant and fairly obvious, she failed to communicate it.

dark diaspora, through no fault of the students, was wholly incomprehensible.  Perhaps theatre critics are just slow on the uptake.  But mandiela’s unwieldy language left everyone in the audience confused, both the lay and the literate.  The student performers (with the possible exception of Ms Johnson) also seemed unaware of what they were saying.  mandiela’s programme notes were similarly inscrutable, not least because of her apparent war against capitalization.  mandiela would do well in the future not to confuse density with profundity, or a lack of understanding with being misunderstood.

Edna Manley is one of a handful of environments that can stage theatre without the iron-fisted constraint of financial viability (Brian Heap’s University Players is another).  It is uniquely positioned, in Jamaica, to train our nascent thespians, playwrights and directors.  But it should do so with a firm grasp of the local theatre landscape, knowing why the school exists, for whom it exists, and what it hopes to achieve.  The staging of PSSST!/dark diaspora suggests these questions remain unanswered.

Theatre Reviews

Two Can Play

News and opinion houses, in their desperate but necessary bid to grab readers, listeners or viewers, are slaves to exaggeration and hyperbole.  Reporting on a gangwar shootout in Rockfort, the Saturday Gleaner screamed one word in blood-red block capitals: “RAMPAGE!” Points worthy of exclamation are lost in journalism riven with exclamation points. Nevertheless, superlatives have their place.  And if you see five Jamaican plays in your short, embattled life, one of them has to be Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play.

The script, which won Best Original Play on its 1982 debut, tells its story with such thunderous honesty that neither the passage of time nor Brian Heap’s mediocre restaging can diminish its impact.  Conceptually, Two Can Play exists at a busy four-way intersection—the gridlocked point of contact between male and female gender roles, and the national identities of Jamaica and America.

It is the story of Jim and Gloria, a firmly middle-class couple in a war-torn section of 1970s Kingston.  Their children are illegal immigrants in America, out of contact for fear of being deported.  Except for Jim’s deathly ill (and unseen) father, they live alone in their modestly-appointed house.  Troubles grow each day; gunshots rain each night.  And Jim wants out—he wants to leave Jamaica, and he wants to leave now.

Their attempt to reach America fills the first act, and the aftermath the second.  Along that journey, the ingrained rhythms of their relationship—who fixes dinner, where he goes on a Tuesday night, what she does in the bathroom—slowly fall out of step, until their interactions become the verbal equivalent of a horribly tone-deaf duet.  Rhone captures, like a photographer, a time-lapse portrait of the Jamaican marriage in collapse, its foundations eroded by year upon year of slights and oversights, squashed into the two-hour confines of modern drama.

Brian Heap, either due to a lack of resources, a lack of imagination, or some combination thereof, neglects to use most of the rudiments of theatre to enhance Rhone’s tour de force.  The set, intended to depict Jim and Gloria’s living quarters, is badly designed, scaled and arranged.  All exits and entrances happen, drearily, on the same upstage plane.  The size of the rooms, given their economic bracket, is improbably large.  And for walls, Heap uses an ad hoc collection of flats, seemingly grabbed from some long-forgotten storeroom, lacking even a color scheme to smooth the illusion.

Lighting and sound design are similarly uninspired, conferring little sense of day or night, much less the emotional states of the characters.  To understand what’s missing, imagine how unsatisfactory your car would be if it contained only the parts necessary to move from departure to destination.  The overall impression, in Two Can Play, is that of walking in on rehearsal night.  With a scheduled run of only six performances, such rough edges are unacceptable.

But you hardly notice those flaws, and maybe forget them entirely, once Alwyn Scott and Nadean Rawlins bring Jim and Gloria to life.  Rawlins is obviously the more intuitive and nuanced actor, but Scott manages to hold his own as the archetypal husband.  As Gloria, Rawlins finds the perpetually fatigued, frustrated equilibrium of her long-suffering housewife and allows the material to ratchet up her blood pressure, scene by scene, until the veins stand out in her neck.  She plays each moment with surety, unafraid to look ugly or foolish in front of an audience.

Scott, however, remains obstructed by his awareness that he is acting, and so cannot find the emotional range needed for Jim, a man whose artifices are harshly stripped away throughout the play.  His turn is competent, though unable to occupy the shadow of the original actor in the part—the late, great Charles Hyatt.

Trevor Rhone’s recent passing leaves Grace McGhie—the first Gloria—as the only remaining parent of Two Can Play.  Although recent headlines indicate that Kingston is still a bullet-riddled city, and although the line outside the American embassy grows ever longer, she can perhaps smile that at least two of her spiritual children (Rawlins and Scott) want to stay—and play—at home.