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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.