by Barbara Blake Hannah
Jamaica is a country of contrasts, carved out by its history as a former slave plantation and British colony. It is mere divine co-incidence that in this Jamaica50 year celebrating the start of the ‘new Jamaica’, two plays currently running in Kingston demonstrate very accurately, the development of the nation from the start of the struggle for freedom, to the Jamaica of today, showing the difference between uptown and downtown, rich and poor, two studies in Black and Blacke.
Mr & Mrs Blacke is set in the uptown St Andrew world of gated communities and three-bedroom townhouses with designer décor, where a stay-at-home wife and her investment broker husband battle verbally to define their marriage and secure their financial goals.
Mr and Mrs Blacke are obsessed with wealth. Mr Blacke is anxious to seal a deal with a former boss that will earn him millions, but Mrs Blacke is jealous of the former boss – a woman, and suspects the deal and the relationship. As the viability of the deal is questioned, the foundation of the childless relationship frays and the quarrel that has been simmering under their 10-year-old marriage erupts into a fight that opens old wounds. Mr Blacke throws Mrs Blacke out of the house, she returns defiantly and then – no, I won’t spoil the ending.
Stanley, Fay, Pularchie & P takes place nearly a century ago in a downtown Kingston tenement yard, at a time when poor Jamaican workers were beginning to protest slave wages in a series of island-wide strikes and riots that gave birth to the modern trade-union movement.
The play was written by the late Gloria Lannaman with a central theme of the labour unrest of the 1930s. The playwright uses this period of Jamaica’s history to weave a tale of the life and human condition of the black working class of that time, and the significant political and social developments that led to the Jamaica of today.
Stanley, a wharf worker who lives with and loves Fay, is agitating the other workers to demand a raise in their wages from nine pence to one shilling an hour – a surprisingly princely sum to Joey, the country-bumpkin-come-to-town who earns nine pence a day as a farm manager!
Stanley’s efforts to persuade the workers to join his demands for more pay are resisted by Silas, who says workers cannot win against management when there is so much willing, free labour. Stanley’s efforts to mobilise the workers causes him to lose his job, then as rioting begins in the street, Silas is killed and Stanley is framed for his murder. To escape, he must- no I won’t spoil the ending either.
Seeing these two plays one night after the other was an unusual experience of social contrasts for me. In two nights of good theatre, Jamaica takes an astonishing leap from yesterday to today. You get the feeling that if the characters in either play met each other in real life, neither would recognise nor acknowledge the reality of the other.
No one in 1938 could have believed that their grandchildren could have left the ghetto so spectacularly as the two uptowners in their pristine white townhouse. Nor could the two uptowners accustomed to their smartphones, gym appointments and expensive lunch dates – ever believe they came from the humble beginnings of Stanley and Fay’s yard, though in fact, we all came from there in one way or other.
Compared with the pathos and emotion of Stanley and Fay, Mr and Mrs Blacke’s marital strife seems trivial and even amusing. But it is as real a picture of the economic lives that fashion Jamaica today. This is no less true of Stanley and Fay in yesterday’s Jamaica.
In fact, it is so uncanny how similar both couples are, that both plays should be a compulsory double-bill presentation for all Jamaica to see.
What both plays have in common are some stellar performances, rarely seen on a Jamaican stage. Mr & Mrs Blacke has only two actors, Keiran King, the first, is not just a good actor, believable in the role, but he also wrote the play and produced it. He and Keisha Patterson – a perfect portrayal of female yuppie hysteria occupy the stage throughout the entire play in a perfectly coordinated dialogue that ranges through all emotions that expose the highs and lows of their relationship with keen acting talent.
The story of the yuppie couple gives a telling (and perhaps accurate) glimpse of the life, interests and aspirations of those behind the gated walls of ‘uptown’ and the play is a tour-de-force of acting, as well as a well-written story not often seen in Jamaican theatre.
The surprising ending adds up, but it’s a story we hope isn’t fully over, perhaps a sequel – as it was such a pleasure.
Director Paul Issa moves his actors effortlessly across the stage, giving them dramatic action and pacing that makes the play a delight to enjoy. He says he worked hard to present the characters truthfully, without passing judgement on their flawed but human natures. The producers, Eight Seven Six, whose brochure states that they ‘set their standards high’, presented an exceptionally beautiful set that gave an accurate setting for the drama, including an outdoor garden with plants on which ‘rain’ falls very realistically in one part of the play.
Set design is again a beautiful feature of the Stanley and Faye set, this time the brick and board, zinc roofs of a downtown yard are spread across the stage. At one side the walls of one house disappear in a scene change to reveal a bedroom in another part of town, while in another scene a very realistic ‘country truck’ bumps and jolts the comic relief couple, Joey and Doris, towards the country. The audience was in awe of the set changes which were quick and quiet.
The players are each excellent. Dennis Titus as Stanley shines in his role as the labour leader, with Sherando Ferril as his girlfriend Fay. Maurice Bryan plays Stanley’s friend Nathan who joins him, while veteran actor Carl Davis plays Silas who does not support the cause. Marguerite Newland plays Miss Pularchie, matron of the yard and mother of Doris, and actually played the role of Doris in the original staging of the play in 1974. Special mention must be made of Donald ‘Iceman’ Anderson who played ‘Joey’ with a unique comedic talent that made his scenes memorable.
Director Pablo Hoilet can be proud of his work. This was a class production.
Stanley and Fay was a great reminder of days gone by. The language so carefully researched by writer Lannaman, caused us to laugh to hear it. Remember ‘chuppence’ (Threepence) or ‘grip’ (small suitcase)’? ‘Whe’ yu ben dey?’ (Where were you?) caused the loudest laugh of the night.
But more than the laughs, was the opportunity to be reminded of what our forefathers endured to win full freedoms from slavery, through the struggle of the 1938 workers.
It’s a battle worth remembering, as we celebrate 50 years of an Independent Jamaica. Congrats to producers Marjorie Whylie and Pauline Stone-Myrie, who played Fay and Ms Pularchie in the original production.
Overall, these two plays show that Jamaican theatre still has moments of excellence, amidst the popular camaraderie that graces our stages. I encourage productions to have a film record made of these theatrical gems, so that generations to come may have the opportunity shared by a few adventurous theatre-goers who value live, high quality entertainment.
Mr & Mrs Blacke is being played at the Philip Sherlock Centre, University of the West Indies, while Stanley Faye, Pularchie & P is being held at Theatre Place, Haining Road.