For the Reckord | Social issues highlighted in drama
Social issues were highlighted by two productions mounted in the corporate Area over the weekend: Ancestral Shadows at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts (PSCCA) at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and Natasha Gordon's debut play Nine Night, put on at the Edna Manley College's School of Drama.
Perhaps not surprisingly, since both the PSCCA and the School of Drama are educational institutions, the directors of both productions stated their didactic intent. Carolyn Allen, director of Ancestral Shadows, told her audience that "one of the objectives of the production was to raise social issues for discussion and action".
After the show, she elaborated telling me of her "interest in treating painful and ugly experiences to help with moving towards healing". For more than a decade, she has been doing this through Off the Page - an initiative she started to stimulate the wider consumption of creative writing from the Caribbean by transforming the texts into more popular media, like theatre, and stage material not originally intended for performance.
An Off the Page production in 1996 culminated with a Jamaica Youth Theatre production of a book of poems - 11/9 by Mel Cooke. One of the many items making up Ancestral Shadows on Sunday was 11/9: Word Terrorist, which was powerfully dramatised by Randy McLaren, Rayon McLean and Brian Johnson. It's a poem about attacking systemic ills in the United States with words instead of guns. McLaren was also responsible for writing and producing another moving item - Armadale, a video about the deadly fire a few years ago at the Armadale Girl's Home.
A third piece, Zong, is about the slave ship that left Africa in September 1781 with 470 abducted Africans on board. On the way, 132 who were ill were thrown overboard as it was claimed that there was a water shortage. In Britain, the owners asked the insurers for compensation for loss of goods and chattels - a claim that the country's highest court upheld. Clearly a piece with great potential, it failed to deliver because it was so dragged out.
Nine Night's director, Elizabeth Montoya Stemann, states in her director's note in the programme, that she chose the play because of its "social and cultural content". She adds, "I wanted our students to embark on a play talking about our Jamaican citizens who ventured to have a life in the 'motherland' and succeeded."
The characters are mostly black Jamaicans living in England. One exception is a white British-born woman, Sophie (played by Kwela Cole), who is married to a Jamaican - Robert (Alexander Williams). Another is a Jamaican relative, Trudy (Samantha Thompson), who arrives for a visit.
Many theatre practitioners who are not students contributed to the success of the production - the direction, set, and work of the costumes and lighting designers, for example, are of the high quality expected of professionals. The student actors also deserve congratulations as, on the whole, characterisation (through body language and vocal delivery) was convincing.
But the director also wanted her cast to experience emotional growth. She states, "Our research brought us to painful places in our history and called for us to reflect about its consequences and impact." The result? "We were moved and transformed [by] the human experience those audacious Jamaicans endured when surrounded by a foreign environment."
The play's many social and family issues include death rituals surrounding transition; the clash of Jamaican cultural practices and those of Britain; cremation versus burial; spirit possession; and, when 45-year-old Sophie gets pregnant, raising a mixed-race child in England.
Nine Night continues at the School of Drama this weekend, while Ancestral Shadows will be replaced at the PSCCA on Sunday by Michael Holgate's Garvey The Musical, another production which examines social issues.