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.
Kingston has the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.
You could read that as a punchline—New York and London, cultural behemoths with 8 million people each, but Kingston, ha! Or you could read it with pride—That’s right! All major trading cities have great art, great artists, and schools to create them! Your response depends partly on what you think of Kingston as a city, and partly on what you think of Edna Manley as a school.
Edna Manley College is uniquely positioned to train our young thespians
Let’s talk about the latter. Last weekend, Edna Manley closed its double-bill production of PSSST! and dark diaspora [ sic], two short performance pieces. They defy brief description, but here’s an attempt. The first piece, PSSST!, was a series of skits and monologues centred around male/female interaction, developed mostly from the actors’ actual experiences. It was directed and choreographed by Neila Ebanks as “an experiment in a physical way of acting.” The second, dark diaspora, was an amorphous student presentation of dub poetry written and directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, the artist currently in residence at the college.
Ron Steger built a spare, practical but attractive set to house both pieces. Other technical aspects—sound, light—were functional and competent. The student actors, bless their hearts, were bright-eyed and full of earnest energy. Shayne Powell and Joanna Johnson both grabbed attention thanks to raw stage presence.
But the twin productions were let down by their architects. The segments in PSSST! were uneven and, at times, overloaded with stimuli. When the students recited poetry by Teneile Warren and Samuel Gordon, the words flew by faster than the audience could process them. The opening segment, which placed the actors amongst the raked audience, was diminished by images projected on the upstage wall—the only way to see everything was to whip your head back and forth like a garden sprinkler. And what other way to act is there besides “a physical way?” All acting is physical. If Neila Ebanks meant something other than the redundant and fairly obvious, she failed to communicate it.
dark diaspora, through no fault of the students, was wholly incomprehensible. Perhaps theatre critics are just slow on the uptake. But mandiela’s unwieldy language left everyone in the audience confused, both the lay and the literate. The student performers (with the possible exception of Ms Johnson) also seemed unaware of what they were saying. mandiela’s programme notes were similarly inscrutable, not least because of her apparent war against capitalization. mandiela would do well in the future not to confuse density with profundity, or a lack of understanding with being misunderstood.
Edna Manley is one of a handful of environments that can stage theatre without the iron-fisted constraint of financial viability (Brian Heap’s University Players is another). It is uniquely positioned, in Jamaica, to train our nascent thespians, playwrights and directors. But it should do so with a firm grasp of the local theatre landscape, knowing why the school exists, for whom it exists, and what it hopes to achieve. The staging of PSSST!/dark diaspora suggests these questions remain unanswered.