Tue | Aug 21, 2018

Against linearity - borderlines and bottom lines

Published:Thursday | May 21, 2015 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke

I think about Dr Earl McKenzie’s exquisite poem, ‘Against Linearity’, quite often as I encounter what seems to be the national tendency to avoid order. One of those instances is coming back to Kingston through Miami (though I have not done it that often) and seeing the striking difference between the persons waiting at that departure gate and others waiting for the call to board to other destinations.

For while, in general, the others going elsewhere sit patiently in some sort of order, we sprawl, we stand around the periphery of the area and just seem to be a mass of barely restrained energy. Boarding by group numbers? Can be problematic.

In ‘Against Linearity’, McKenzie writes, “We reject the straight line”, not least of all “for it is rigid as death”. I saw him a few weeks ago and told him about another, more frequent occasion on which ‘Against Linearity’ comes to mind. When I come to The Gleaner on a Sunday, I am invariably fascinated by how East Street runs straight from Heroes Circle to the Waterfront, as do Duke and King streets, among others in downtown Kingston.

During Sunday’s daylight hours, when pedestrians are few and vehicular traffic is limited on the roads, how downtown Kingston’s plan in a grid becomes much clearer than we normally get to appreciate. However, how parts of urbanised St Andrew we call Kingston have developed, definitely goes against linearity.

So what does all this have to do with borderlines and bottom lines and entertainment? Well. If you have tolerated my rambling so far (which includes that I know a departure gate at Miami airport and a big poet/academic/painter), you may as well stick it out for the next 800 words or so.


The title of the play, Shebada Comes To Town, indicates the stereotypical rural-to-urban drift, although since ‘town’ means not only the straight roads in downtown Kingston, but also those in urban St Andrew which go against linearity, we cannot instantly ascertain which version he is heading to. It could have been a television advertisement for that play which gave the Shebada character Keith Ramsay plays to the hilt real big buss (or maybe it was Bashment Granny). It was short and memorable. Shebada is asked if he is a man or a woman, to which he replies “me deh pon de borderline”. It became a catchphrase for persons (especially sexually) and things which were not clearly defined.

However, there were no considerations of ‘borderlinity’ of Shebada in dancehall, where his name was thrown about in lines about the bottom – and, in this case, gay did not mean happy. But there was and continues to be a curious thing. The plays Shebada appeared in pulled in strong, consistent houses. And this has not only been in formal theatres, but also the many spaces that have been utilised for showing what is considered roots theatre across the island – bus parks, schools, the LIME Golf Academy in New Kingston and Mas Camp (when it was on Oxford Road) among them.

Strangely enough, some of those venues were also utilised for dancehall – the very genre in which the Shebada character had become synonymous with having crossed over the borderline of male sexuality into the very bottom of the male pecking (or maybe we should say ‘pricking’) order. And although I have not been to see a Shebada play (which, as someone who claims to be interested in Jamaican popular culture, is a deficiency which I should correct), I seriously doubt that the bumper audiences were totally female.

Naturally, that means many a tough-back man, many of whom would have been virulently against those guys who go over the sexual borderline into man-an-man territory, went to see Shebada and his exaggerated femininity onstage. This includes outside Jamaica, so chances are, at some point, Shebada and company would have been at a departure gate in the USA testing the limits of a waiting area’s borderlines.

As I consider the acceptance of the Shebada character, I am reminded of other instances onstage in which men stray considerably away from the yard man machismo. By far, the most memorable moment I have experienced in comedy where physical appearance was at the root of the joke, happened at the then Backyaad venue on Constant Spring Road, where Comedy Crack-Up was held monthly. It was after a world-level athletics meet and a moment of Jamaican victory was recreated by Ity and Fancy Cat.

Ity did the race commentary and, at the moment of victory by the black, green and gold, his partner in laughter, Fancy Cat, burst on to stage in slow motion. Thing is, he was playing Veronica Campbell-Brown and Cat was in a very tight yellow vest (sleeveless, hair a shoob up all bout) and black tights that were, if my memory serves me correctly, about mid-thigh.

From 12 inches under the concrete to 20 feet in the air, Backyaad moved. And kept moving. Chairs were thrown in the air, men ran up and down, women doubled over. It was a seriously funny borderline moment.

Then there is the Hilarious Granny, with a generously padded posterior and a number of wigs which come off in rapid succession at the climax of his/her act, for Granny is a guy.

I have long wondered how, in a society which loudly proclaims male straightness, characters like Shebada and the Hilarious Granny, as well as moments like Fancy Cat playing Veronica Campbell-Brown, can do so well with audiences. Not only that, but effeminate male characters abound in the society and, as far as I know about those who I am aware of, are more a source of humour and comment (“Yu see wha de bway a wear?) than anything else.

Then I thought about Earl McKenzie’s ‘Against Linearity’ again and wondered if there is yet another application to the Jamaican psyche. Could it be that, as much as we are supposed to be generally adamant about male sexual straightness, there is this little thing in us which urges a challenge to even that ultimate masculine rigidity? Could there be a sneaking acceptance of those who go against the line, which plays out in our enthusiasm about borderline sexual characters?

It is not inconceivable that, in our entertainment spaces, we find value in even those who go against male ‘straightness’, as much as a few deejays declare that they are as straight as the seam of a freshly ironed (and starched) pants or six o’clock on an analog clock.

Maybe I am reaching far beyond what is reasonable in trying to understand this contradiction between vehement male straightness and a certain bent (pun intended) in the public entertainment space. But that would help explain how so many male entertainers, including dancers and deejays, appear as cross-dressers in their teeny weeny pants and body blouses (made of clinging fabric, too). Added to that is the wearing of said pants in a fashion that exposes the underwear. Are we so against the straight line that we will accept these blatant transgressions of male straightness as being ‘fashion’, even from some of those who make lyrical bottom lines out of masculinity borderline transgressions?

In the vein of ‘Against Linearity’, the testing of the boundaries of overt straightness through fashion and music and efforts to enforce same, remember the deejay lines:

“Fire burn

Yu better learn

A no everything out deh yu fi burn

Imagine, yu dress up inna yu lates’ wear

Put on yu Versace cause a tight pants deh wear

Yu come out yu hear a Rastaman say bun dung a queer

Yu feel like yu waan disappear

On the less close-fitting side of the male clothing matter, in the same song, the deejay says:

“You waan get a Rastaman vex

Inna him turban an him robe

An him don’ got no cuss

Him come out him hear a baldhead say bun dung a dress

Den yu woulda know who Jah bless”

Is a serious thing.