Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Award-winning plays for School of Drama

Published:Friday | October 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Director Trevor Nairne (left) with actor Chris McFarlane. - Photo by Michael Reckord

Theatre lovers are in for a rare treat over the next month as the School of Drama, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, stages two Obie (Off-Broadway Theatre) award-winning plays consecutively.

Venus, by Pulitzer Prize winning American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, opens on October 24 at the School of Drama and plays for two weekends. It will be followed on November 7 by probably the best known of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott's 40 plus plays, Dream on Monkey Mountain. It will also run for two weekends.

The latter, which got a critically acclaimed production directed by Carroll Dawes at the Ward Theatre in the 1970s, won the Obie award in 1971. This time around, it is being directed by the multiple Actor Boy Award (ABA) winning director Trevor Nairne and stars another ABA winner, stage and film actor Christopher McFarlane.

SOUTH AFRICAN DIRECTOR

Venus, which won the Obie for Parks in 1995, is being directed by South African actress/director Dr Alude Mahali, who now teaches at the School of Drama. A student of the school, Samantha Thompson, is a musical assistant for both Dream and Venus. Drama School students Eden Gibson and Jamie Oliver alternate in the title character's role.

Parks, born in Kentucky in 1963 and encouraged to write by author James Baldwin, became the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Topdog/Underdog in 2002.

The Venus story, Mahali told me, is about "Sarah Saartjie Baartman, a young woman of Khoisan heritage who, in 1810, is taken from her South African homeland to be showcased as an oddity and curiosity in London and later Paris under the appellation, 'Hottentot Venus'."

"Using a sideshow carnival motif, Parks takes us on a satirical journey of 'The Venus Hottentot'. Parks juxtaposes Baartman's sensuality, sexuality and femininity with her objectification, fetishisation and exoticisation in a humorous, uncomfortable and, at times, devastating manner."

Mahali promised that audiences of her production will see Baartman emerge "in all her show-ready glory", but warned "what her dress reveals are the burdens of history embodied by one woman".

"This is not merely the story of a woman with a large posterior; this is the story of a woman who is abducted (though seemingly complicit) from her homeland and is completely 'othered' in Europe, where she is abused, treated like an animal and, after five brutal years, dies unmourned."

Online research showed me why, as Mahali said, "even in death, her body does not belong to her". Dr Georges Cuvier, who gave Baartman a venereal disease and had her imprisoned until she died, later exhibited her skeleton and organs in Paris' Musee de l'Homme.

Baartman's remains were returned to South Africa in 2002 and her grave at Hankey in the Eastern Cape has become an official heritage site, Mahali revealed. "Thus she got something she was never afforded in her short life - dignity," Mahali said.

Thematically, the director said, "The play satirically handles topics like representation, objectification of the black female body, 'othering' of the black female body, cultural appropriation, and shows the absurdity of colonialism."

STILL RELEVANT

She said the story preoccupied her because of its continued relevance. "Even in present day," she said, "The black female body is still objectified, though now most individuals have choices."

Mahali, who is an actress as well as a director and educator, performed in Parks' play Fcking A (2003) and directed another of her plays, In the Blood (1999).

Giving audiences a hint about what to expect in the humour-filled play, Mahali said, "The action tends to be more than usually demonstrative, gestural and physical, so that the actor is able to portray a character (sometimes symbolically) from a number of different perspectives. In this manner, this is a stylistic departure from anything the students are used to."

She promised audiences will find the staging and action is "a visual treat" and a stylistic departure from what is usually seen in Jamaican theatres.

I can vouch for the accuracy of the "visual treat" phrase, as on Wednesday I wandered into the Dennis Scott Studio Theatre where the play will be staged and saw the set being painted in gorgeous colours. I was also able to speak about the production with School of Drama director Eugene Williams.

He said: "The political thrust of the piece, as well as Parks' heavily textured, expressive, satirical and non-naturalistic rendering also present meaningful challenges for the cast and, hopefully, a welcome viewing reality for audiences."