Standing Ovation For Woman Tongue
After Carol Lawes, mouth trembling, shuffled her way to the back of the stage where Barbara McCalla, Karen Harriott, Hilary Nicholson and Bertina MaCaulay were already standing behind individual vertical strips of backlit white cloth, there was silence at the Courtleigh Auditorium, New Kingston, on Sunday night. The lights went down and came up again for the excellent quintet of actresses to come forward for the audience's appreciation and got more than the accustomed applause in a standing ovation from the near capacity house.
In that final scene of Woman Tongue, a Scarlette Beharie production of Tanya Batson-Savage's script, directed by Eugene Williams, they were all duppies. Lawes, the most recent addition to the downtown cemetery cast watching her own funeral, first admired then cried out to her husband Ezekiel, warning him to avoid Hyacinth, who seemed to be already making a move on the newly minted widower. Before Lawes finally turned her back on 'Zeke', she said she was lonely and asked that he hurry up and be with her.
There was also a telling line from another of the spectres, to the effect that maybe death is really when people cannot move on from adverse circumstances.
Despite all the laughter in Woman Tongue - and there is a lot, building gradually in the opening scene where McCalla puts the energy of anger into scrubbing her late husband's pants as she rages at another woman's observation of the widow's dalliance with a man - loneliness and moving on from traumatic circumstances permeate the production. It is not so much a matter of the actresses taking 'serious ting make laugh' (the characters, save for Harriott as a purple wig-wearing prostitute and the gang of ghosts in the final scene rarely break into outright humour), but the audience finding levity in how they cope with tragedy and trauma. For good measure, there is a well-pronounced 'clart', the refined version of 'claat'.
Each actress gets extensive solo stage time in Woman Tongue, which is effectively a series of monologues (it is actually stated in the ending scene that Lawes' monologue is being interrupted) where the audience doubles as conversation partner (a role Sunday's gathering
revelled in), along with a few instances where interaction between two actresses is required. Among these is the tempestuous mother-daughter conversation between Lawes and Harriott as the latter asks if her mother has ever had an orgasm. Then there is Harriott as the helper who Nicholson finds her husband having (unwilling) sex with.
But the men who are very much present in a script which deals extensively with male-female love are absent from the stage even when they are alive. So a strip of white cloth over a chair is the focal physical point of MaCaulay's explanation to her husband about their child not being physically actually his; the audience gets a description of the darker-skinned man Nicholson married, to her mother's disgust; the all-important teeth of the younger man MaCaulay is dressing to meet gleam in the imagination.
However, speaking solo does not mean an actress is all alone on stage; during each scene, the actresses not speaking still participated, seated in pairs on either side of the stage, bearing stoic witness to the story.
Their placement was also strategic, as the actresses changed the set - and sometimes elements of their outfits - in full view of the audience, Williams successfully choreographing the quintet in fluid movement on a deceptively simple-looking set to create a seamless flow between scenes.
Woman Tongue was not, of course, perfect. But on that set and in straightforward language, it was a serious, humour-filled, well-staged conversation among women on issues including sex, murder-suicide, gender and race bias (Nicholson's lighter complexion is unabashedly and effectively utilised more than once, including as she is about to bury her mother who disagreed with Nicholson marrying a darker-skinned man), ageing, education, growing up, and of course, death, loneliness and moving on.
Hence the standing ovation.