The life of Rev Fr Richard Ho Lung – rebel cum priest cum rebel priest – is a story waiting to be told. It already has – in the autobiographical Diary of a Ghetto Priest, published in book form and a long-running column in the Jamaica Gleaner, where the founder and Superior General of the Missionaries of the Poor parses both his life and ours with his deep Christian faith and empathy for those in need in Jamaica. The urban-clergyman-provides-social-uplift kernel of his journey has many fictional (e.g., the 2001 American film Diary of a City Priest) and non-fictional precedents; Martin Luther King Jr’s early career followed a similar trajectory. All of which is to say that few excuses can be found for the incoherent, overreaching, dramatically bereft production on display last weekend at the Arena, Yes!, which fictionalizes his life.
Nevertheless, I will try to find one.
The director of a Ho Lung production usually faces a decidedly unusual task: transforming some half-dozen musical numbers into a narrative that will hold an audience for two hours (full disclosure: I performed with Fr Ho Lung’s theatre troupe for most of the 1990s). Other songs are added; dialogue written; choreography introduced, all with the aim of creating and enhancing a good story.
In years gone by, this fell on the shoulders of the incomparable Alwyn Bully, a Dominican director who adopted Jamaica, adapted Ho Lung, and spearheaded a string of hit shows (from Sugar Cain and The Rock to Jesus 2000 and Moses). By contrast, Yes! is directed by Gregory Thames, a longstanding member of the production team who steps into Alwyn’s long shadow but does not find his footing.
The play moves like an old car: too slowly, with the occasional jerk forward. Early scenes establish Father Luke (the protagonist, played adequately by perennial favourite Wynton Williams) as a man of the people, but he spends few moments amongst them. Adversaries appear and disappear without resistance or explanation – an irate Member of Parliament added tedium, not tension. Indulgent lighting, effects and costumes did not mask these (and other) structural flaws.
At times, Yes! approaches drama. Luke searches for a middle ground between the rigidly hierarchical church and the rigidly hierarchical ghetto; he confronts archbishops and dons with equal aplomb, and the parallels are perhaps unintended but striking. He also struggles with externalized internal demons who create authentic menace on stage.
A foreign reporter figure (Maylynne Walton, unconvincing) allows Thames to bring a videocamera on stage and film “live footage” of the inner city, projected on dual screens built into the set. The effect is twofold: newsfeed (and by extension all journalism) is stripped to its naked class bias, and we are given a second, warmer window into Jamaica’s forgotten families.
Standout performances include Chevaughn Clayton as a conflicted gunman and Michael Harris as Father Luke’s right-hand man. They uncover humanity in their characters and sing with conviction (Note to Thames: the National Arena has notoriously poor acoustics; staging a musical inside it makes for frustrating listening). The show would have benefitted from a smaller space (say, The Little Theater) and a longer run. Then, on the third weekend, after the curtain fell, a critic could have leaned back, whipped out his notebook, and scribbled: Yes!