Theatre dominates quality fare
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
As October prepares to exit and November gets set to enter the stage that is Jamaican life, one thing we can't complain of is a lack of top-class dance, drama and music.
Today, in the Bank of Jamaica's (BOJ) auditorium the always delightful Dr Kathy Brown, along with friends, will do a free lunch-hour concert. Later, at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts' School of Drama, the first of the final three showings of the OBIE (Off Broadway) award-winning play Venus by Susan-Lori Parks will be staged.
Saturday evening will see dance take the spotlight with the start of Dance Theatre Xaymaca's two-day run at The Little Theatre. On Sunday morning, at Palace Cineplex, Sovereign Centre, the Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire, produced by Britain's National Theatre, will be screened.
Also, rehearsals are taking place for upcoming shows. One of them is the University of the West Indies' (UWI) annual Tallawah Drama Festival at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts. Another is the School of Drama's production of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott's OBIE winner Dream on Monkey Mountain, which opens November 7 and runs for two weekends.
I asked Tallawah's director, Michael Holgate, in whose opinion "the festival provides wonderful exposure, a great learning environment and a unique sharing opportunity for tertiary-level student-theatre groups", for some information on the festival. Here's what I got:
Playing dates and times: November 4-7 from 7:00 p.m. nightly, and November 9 (the day of the Best of Tallawah and awards ceremony) from 5:30 p.m.
Participating institutions: CASE, Church Teachers' College, Jamaica Youth Theatre (JYT), UTech, UWI Cave Hill, and the halls of residence at UWI Mona. A number of independent performers will also participate.
Categories on awards night: Best Production, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Storyteller (male/female), Best Monologue (male/female), Best Poetry Performance (male/female), Best Group Poetry, Best Lighting, Best Multimedia, Best Use of Stage Property, Best Off the Page, Best New Play.
Tallawah is now in its 47th year, Holgate told me. He is being assisted with this production by Tyane Robinson, a UWI MPhil student, and Rayon McLean, founder and artistic director of Quilt Performing Arts Company.
I asked School of Drama director Eugene Williams about reasons for choosing Venus and Dream and Monkey Mountain as this semester's productions. The criteria, he said, included critical relevance (with regard to themes, dramaturgy, style and genre) to areas of the school's curriculum; suitable challenges that would expose and facilitate the developmental process of students in areas of analysis of dramatic literature, playwriting, humanistic development and performance; the possibility for a meaningful and entertaining experience for a critical audience; and a gender ratio that suits students who are eligible to do the production.
The students are predominantly female, so casts of plays invariably are as well.
"Venus, to be directed by South African lecturer Dr Alude Mahali, received the selection committee's nod because of its director's authoritative concept of the play," Williams said. "The political thrust of the piece, as well as Park's heavily textured, expressive, satirical and non-naturalistic rendering, also present meaningful challenges for the cast and, hopefully, a welcome viewing reality for audiences."
The play is based on the real story of Sarah Saartjie Baartman, a South African who was abducted from her homeland, abused and exhibited like an animal in London and Paris for five years. The outrage did not cease with her death from a sexually transmitted disease given to her by her owner/lover, Dr Georges Cuvier; he dissected the body and had her skeleton exhibited.
To a great extent, the criteria set for the production have been met. Ironically, however, the very desirable challenges which the work presents to students have also faced audiences and, I suspect, kept them away.
I was thoroughly entertained by the energy and enthusiasm of the actors, colour and style of the set and fluidity of the direction. But the non-naturalistic, non-linear writing caused me some confusion as I tried to follow the complex story. Happily, a second (partial) viewing cleared things up quite a bit. Like most good art, the show needs a revisit for full understanding.
Students whose performances stand out include Eden Gibson in the title role, Samantha Thompson (the Mother Showman), Danielle Jones (The Negro Resurrectionist), Shamar Bruce (The Baron Docteur) and Lemar Archer , who plays multiple roles.
My discussion with Williams, producer of both Venus and Dream on Monkey Mountain, turned to the latter play. He called it "Walcott's iconic Caribbean classic about the forging of an identity out of the dual consciousness of the West Indian experience through language and a new poetics", specifically about "race, empowerment, reparation and issues of culture ambivalence".
He revealed that multiaward-winning director Trevor Nairne is presenting the work as "a Rastafarian meditation". That approach, Williams said, "promises a certain immediacy of treatment and useful reflection that we feel would serve the education process well and cultivate culturally liberating performance technique".
Williams underscored the fact that the aims of School of Drama productions are quite different from those of commercial theatre. "Humanistic education and the foundations for professional development, praxis and career pursuit mean exposure and engagement with meaningful literature and cultural education that helps students to find their voice and develop some critical, pedagogical and performance skills," he pointed out.
"The process is paramount," Williams emphasised, while "in the local commercial world (of necessity) the product is the thing and its primary function is to entertain with a product that provides instant gratification".