As a general rule, there are only two plays running at any given time in Kingston. One is an American or British import, such as Love Letters by A R Gurney (American) or Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn (British), preloaded with accolades (Pulitzer nominations, celebrity casting, extended runs), produced at a prominent location (Philip Sherlock, Little Little Theatre) and attended by no one (except the family of the cast and people who write criticism for major newspapers).
The second is a homegrown comedy, which we can fictionally call Get Dem Fi Laugh, written by an untrained playwright, featuring an ensemble cast of a half dozen or so talented actors playing stock roles straight out of the commedia dell’arte—the clown, the shopkeeper, the cavalier, the statesman—embroiled in a plot involving adultery and/or jealousy, launched on a stage the size of a large walk-in closet and frequented by the entire working-class population of Jamaica, from the bureaucrat down to the bureau-maker.
At the moment, Money Worries, Bashment Granny 2, Backbiter, and to a lesser extent, RRR 2K9, are all Get Dem Fi Laugh, trivially distinguished by different names and name actors. As a test, find the page in today’s Gleaner where they are advertised—look for verbal klaxons like ‘Comedy Extravaganza!’ and ‘Comedy Spectacle!’—and cover the names with your hand. Now try to tell which group of smiling, bug-eyed faces is which.
This is our quandary (or, in patois, our kraasiz). To enjoy theatre that respects its audience and medium, we must turn to (mostly foreign) plays that have little to say about the Jamaican condition; to enjoy cultural relevance, we must endure productions that often fail to observe fundamentals of plot and character development.
Adrian Nelson has resolved that quandary.
His latest play, Dream Merchant, is a dream come true—a playscript with a solid structure and believable, playable, theatrical characters, under the guidance of experienced, trained hands and brought to life by extraordinary actors—in other words, a ‘roots’ play rooted in theatre essentials. It’s an honest-to-goodness comedy extravaganza!
Dream Merchant is the story of a poor country girl, Shauna (Kedicia Stewart), who, while washing dirty linen for a living, dreams of music stardom. Her boyfriend (Tesfa Edwards) is a struggling young farmer with no future. On the advice of her neighbour, Miss Shirley, a former go-go dancer played by the hilarious and healthily-proportioned Dorothy Cunningham, she enters a talent contest promising a record contract in Kingston. There, she meets producer Mr Biggs (Ronald Goshop) and his wife, Ms Ting (Audrey Reid).
The party of five is a joy to watch—all the actors, including relative newcomers Stewart and Edwards, find a rhythm with each other, balancing their deliveries, aware of each other’s energy and space. Director Carol Lawes has done well by Mr Nelson, handling his material and her actors with care and confidence.
All five turn in sharp performances. Stewart is ruthless in the way that beautiful women can be. Edwards, with the least to do, is appropriately downtrodden. Dorothy Cunningham, as the reformed woman of faith, is a master of physical moments—if for nothing else, you must see Ms Cunningham move her derriere. Ronald Goshop, whom we met decades ago in sturdy classics such as Smile Orange, gives his Mr Biggs a casual dominance that works well.
And then there is the phenomenon known as Audrey Reid. Even amongst esteemed peers, she stands out. Even with a creative character, she elevates it. To watch her onstage is to watch a leopard in the wild—a creature in her natural element, supremely comfortable but never relaxed, always moving with purpose and expediency, no wasted steps, no wasted breath.
There is an animalistic edge to her portrayal of the embattled-but-never-battered wife, Ms Ting. Her lines with Mr Goshop slice like a bird’s talon, leaving something acrid in the air between them. She conveys the possibility of danger the way animals do—with heightened senses and pulses of energy. Only Glen Campbell may match her comic timing in contemporary theatre. She can throw a withering look like a knife, bring it back, and then throw it to the audience for an additional laugh.
Here’s wishing Mr Nelson can be a merchant of many dreams to come. Dream Merchant is currently running at Centerstage.