Plays look back for current solutions
The theatrical productions currently playing, Duppy Whisperer (Centerstage Theatre) and Guilt Trip (Little Little Theatre) by playwrights Patrick Brown and Basil Dawkins, respectively, are both laughter-filled.
The first is a farce, a fast-paced, over-the-top comedy. The second, a comedy drama, moves at a normal pace and takes a comic look at a realistic situation. Of course, the characters in both face problems for, as Dennis Scott once told us in his playwriting class, "no problem, no drama".
The Duppy Whisperer characters are Glen Campbell (Seefus Jonas, aka Dr Seefur), Camille Davis (Adassa, Seefus' wife), Courtney Wilson and Sakina Deer (Coby and Sky, respectively, Seefus and Adassa's neighbours), Sharee Elise (Gerda, a helper) and David Crossgill (Undercover Detective Sheg-up).
The first and last names in the list indicate the play is a farce, which is helpful to know. For while all of Brown's plays at Centerstage are comedies, not all are farces, and to really appreciate a play, you need to know its type.
If you were in the mood for a realistic play, Duppy Whisperer would displease you. As it is, even if you were in the mood for a farce, much of the first scene of the play would fall flat. It is largely exposition (background information) about the situation in which Seefus and Adassa find themselves.
Seefus is an obeah man and the couple has recently moved from St Thomas to Waterworks, an uptown Corporate Area community. To Adassa's annoyance, Seefus has planted his flag in the yard and is setting up his obeah paraphernalia to continue his business.
The quarrelling between the two is unnecessarily prolonged, as we quickly get the playwright's point - the two are unhappy together. But when the neighbours and their helper come in, the story picks up and gradually gets better and better.
It moves from having an interesting Raisin in the Sun-type episode, with the neighbours anxious for the out-of-place newcomers to move away, to becoming a murder mystery and later to taking a wonderfully imaginative leap into historical fantasy.
An African king and queen are transported into Seefus' home (where, efficiently, the entire play is set.) Given the magical context of the play, their entrance is believable and they solve the problems in a supernatural way that leaves everyone (alive) happy, the audience included.
The plunge into the island's past that Duppy Whisperer takes is also taken by Guilt Trip, and in both plays the move adds a satisfying dimension to the story. There are a couple of differences, however.
The former play pulls the Africa of centuries ago into the present and the episode comes towards the end of the story, the perfect place for a powerful climax. In Guilt Trip, however, we move from present day Kingston to the country, with the feel of a Jamaica of half-century ago. That was a time and place of catching birds with calabans, of playing with gigs, catching godami fish in rivers and playing dominoes outdoors without fear of gunmen. This is the world of Westmorelander Steadman Hall (Oliver Samuels), but not the world of his son, Morgan (Dennis Titus), a lecturer in an American university, and his ex-wife, Irene (Ruth Ho-Shing), a Kingston resident.
We meet Hall at home in the second scene. The dialogue there with his son, as well as a brief conversation on the phone - a cell phone, showing he's not totally rustic - establish Hall as a generous, loving man. Considering the point that Dawkins is trying to make, that old-time country life is good for the soul, it is a pity that we are not back to the country at the end of the play when all problems are solved.
This may be because of the constraints placed on the playwright and set designer Michael Lorde by the physical limitations of the theatre. If a film were to be made of the play, it would almost certainly end in the country.
In fact, the dialogue suggests that is where the post-curtain episode will be. As every good storyteller knows, life continues for the characters after the last full stop (hence the familiar ending, "and they lived happily ever after.")
It is passing strange that not only do the two plays share an important story idea, the use of Jamaica's past to help solve current problems, but also have a similar weakness, the handling of a temporarily mentally disturbed character. I blame the directors more than the writers for this, though in the case of Duppy Whisperer, Brown is both the writer and co-director (with Trevor Nairne). Guilt Trip also has two directors, Toni-Kay Dawkins and Douglas Prout.
The Gerda that we first meet is robotic in her movements, snaps at people without good reason and twitches and mutters to herself like a crazy person. She is a caricature of the rude maid. But in the play's final scene she becomes transformed. Having a purpose at last - fighting a duppy - she becomes focused, determined and graceful in movement.
The Morgan that we first meet speaks fluently and is physically well coordinated. But when he makes a certain discovery about his father, he becomes not depressed, which would be natural, but also regressed to babyhood. Suddenly, Morgan loses control of his head and it hangs to one side with the mouth open. He can only speak in monosyllables and takes the halting steps of a baby learning to walk. Yes, he recovers in the next scene.
Happily, the general strength of the productions compensates for these missteps in directing (and probably acting). The audiences I was part of left the theatres with favourable comments.