Laughter vs thought - Two plays reignite age-old debate
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
What makes a play good or bad? It's an important and contentious question.
Recently, I saw plays by two of our best playwrights, Dahlia Harris and Patrick Brown. Harris ran Her Last Cry for only two weekends at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, University of the West Indies, Mona. Brown's Funny Kind'a Love, a Jambiz International production, is now on at Centerstage Theatre, New Kingston.
Brown's If There's a Will There's a Wife, probably his best play, recently closed at Centerstage and, within weeks, it was replaced by Funny Kind'a Love, which may well be his worst.
So what happened with Funny Kind'a Love? Basil Dawkins, another successful playwright-producer, suggested the answer during a conversation with fellow theatre practitioners at Centerstage recently.
It was in response to deprecating remarks I made about Funny Kind'a Love and, specifically my wondering aloud whether Brown, when he's 95 years old and looking back at his contribution to Jamaican theatre, will feel he had done his best as a playwright. Dawkins said: "Jambiz (the theatre production house in which Brown is a partner) is very clear about what it is doing. It is running a business. You can't fight the man for that."
The implication was that while Brown could very well look back and feel that while he hadn't done his best as a playwright, he had done his duty as a businessman. Jambiz International cannot afford to have even one of their multimillion dollar productions fail.
Funny Kind'a Love has the storyline, characters and dialogue of a television soap opera. Two brothers (played by Glen Campbell and Courtney Wilson) are married to two sisters (Sakina Deer and Camille Davis). One sister is a self-declared slut. Cheating is going on. There is a pregnancy and uncertainty about the father. Of course, there is a hospital scene. And a death.
Anyone familiar with the soaps will recognise those ingredients. Still, they could have been treated in an authentic way. Instead, Brown does what he has been doing with virtually every play since his excellent naturalistic drama December - whenever a genuinely painful moment starts rearing its head, the playwright snaps it off with a quip. It's a technique designed to keep the audience laughing and not feeling or thinking.
Businessman Brown and his partners know the playwright has to get full houses at Centerstage. His plays must be for the large audiences who want to laugh, not for the tiny audiences who want to think. That is not an indictment on Jamaican audiences; it's the same the world over. Nevertheless, we must remember that good-quality drama is important to the country, not only for our soul, but for the economy. Quality culture is big business.
With Her Last Cry, Harris shows she's concerned about our soul. The subject, spousal abuse, is an important societal one. The playwright treats the issue in a direct way. You see Paul, the brutal husband (played by Tesfa Edwards) punching Joanna, his wife (Harris), and beating her with a belt. The heroine in the drama is Lou, the maid (Belinda Reid), who provides strength when Joanna is too weak to stand up to her husband.
Throughout the play, members of the audience gasped, groaned and yelled out derisive comments to Paul and advice to Joanna. They were totally engaged and, again and again, I heard voices saying how real the situation was.
I asked Harris after the show why, when she was highlighting such an important topic and had audiences which empathised so completely with the play, she was staging it for only two weekends. She said that she couldn't get a venue for a longer run.
With the recent closing of three Corporate Area theatres - two at Stages on Knutsford Boulevard and the Pantry Playhouse - I'm sure that was a consideration. Still, I'd expected her to say the audiences weren't coming. On the evening I saw the show, the theatre was more than half empty. Was that because the play, authentic though it was, offered nothing to laugh about?
When I congratulated Harris on her bravery in treating the touchy subject, she said "we really have to broaden the appetite of our audiences." The business-minded Jambiz International partners take the easy way out.
I believe that, in the long term, Harris will be proved right.