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.