For the Reckord | First dancehall musical gives 'edutainment'
Among the enthusiastic audience watching From Den Till Now, Jamaica's first dancehall musical, was 20 university students who were there to do research. That would've been good news to the show's writer/director/producer/performer Orville Hall, for he intended the musical to provide 'edutainment', a mix of education and entertainment.
That's what he told the audience at the end of Saturday's night's staging at Phoenix Theatre, Haining Road. As the name suggests, the musical takes the audience on a journey of Jamaican music and dance. Starting with mento music, it travels to the current dancehall era.
The founder and artistic director of Xpression, he told me that Saturday's performance was the last for the month. However, he has booked the theatre for five more presentations in December.
Of the dozen or so performers in the almost two-and-a half-hour-long show, most are collectively called the Xpressions ensemble, but the named main players are Hall, Shelly-Ann Callum, Stacy-Ann Facey, Kavaughn Scott and Rayan Robinson. Everyone has multiple roles. They include schoolchildren, school faculty and ancillary staff, members of a Revival church; inner-city residents, a few dons, higglers, a politician, and a female compËre at a fashion show.
The last-named character, who wears a fashionable hat and speaks like an RJR news anchor (in Standard English), is the only one who might be deemed middle-class. Hall has made her a commentator on and not a creator of artistic products (the fashion). He may be reflecting on the fact that the popular music and dance that have made Jamaica a powerful cultural force in the world generally come from the lower classes. Jamaica's "art" music, good though it is - and there are significant amounts of it - is not as influential on the world stage.
The frame that Hall gives to the pencil-thin story - his excuse for the journey - is that Xpressions High School is in financial trouble and could close. Principal Pulpit (Hall) tells students and faculty that the disaster could be avoided if they win a music competition with a first prize of just under the $750,000 the school needs. They agree on a fundraising concert to make up the difference.
As the characters, those at the school and those living nearby, go about their daily business, we see that most have tremendous artistic talent. Their skill in dancing ska, Revival, tambo, Kumina, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall is delightfully demonstrated.
The cast's dancing prowess is matched by their acting talent. All are convincing - vocally and with their body language, in the multiple roles they play. What help in their characterisation are the costumes - the colourful, elaborate dress of the community don, and the dancehall 'queen' the rude boy's outfit, etc. Unfortunately, there is no printed programme listing the contributions of the various designers and directors, but whoever designed the costumes deserves at least an Actor Boy nomination.
One of the joys of the production is the varied music spanning the years from way back in the last century, to contemporary times. It's all recorded - songs, too. So we see the performers lip-syncing - that's unusual in musicals, of course, but it would've made casting easier; Hall only needed actor-dancers, he didn't need performers who could also sing.
Musically, the production takes us back several decades, but if it is remounted decades from now, it will give historical snapshots of current activities - the 'cash for gold' phenomenon, the All Together Sing television show, the CSEC theatre arts exams, and TVJ's Schools' Challenge Quiz to name a few. One scene refers to the "marrying of goods" of the 1970s - which most youngsters today would not have experienced.
Hall told us at the end of the show that his mother was in the audience. Initially, she had been against his pursuing a performing- arts career, but she's very proud of him now, he said, a big smile on his face. She should be. He has presented segments of this successful show, originally only 20 minutes long, in several countries.