For the Reckord | 'Bellywoman Bangarang' gets a powerful dancehall staging
Jamaican theatre was greatly augmented with the formation of the Sistren Theatre Collective in 1977. It saw female street cleaners in the Government's Crash programme crashing into a brand-new, undreamt-of career as they transformed themselves into actresses in poignant, powerful improvised works based on their own experiences.
That first year, they tested the waters with their first play, Downpression Get a Blow, presenting it at a Workers' Week festival.
Their second production, Bellywoman Bangarang, took them in their second year on to a commercial stage, The Barn Theatre.
Though the way the women presented their domestic experiences was new to Jamaican theatre, those experiences were common, and audiences here could identify with them. Within the decade, under the guidance of a professional theatre practitioner, Honor Ford-Smith, the group won award after award and became renowned regionally and internationally.
Bellywoman Bangarang was "hailed as a breakthrough" in 1978, according to Ford Smith, writing decades later. It may have lost the advantage of novelty - for many community theatre groups creating pieces through improvisation have sprung up in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean since Sistren led the way - but, restaged and currently playing at the Edna Manley College School of Drama, the play is as powerful as ever. That's partly because the director, Camille Quamina, uses dancehall music to help drive and elucidate the play. The music was not available 40 years ago, so just its currency and popularity make it attractive. Quamina, however, attaches additional importance to it. Writing in the printed programme, she first notes how important the play's theme is. It explores "the challenges of gender politics in a contemporary urban context, revealing the underbelly of misogyny and the patriarchal system that sustains it".
Then she identifies three other benefits of the dancehall context. It "revives and contemporaries" the women's narratives and "amplifies these narratives in urban settings". The result is that "through the power of sound/song and dance/movement", the trauma the women suffer is "transcended".
Audiences may disagree with Quamina about the transcendence of trauma. For one thing, much of dancehall focuses, like the play, on the emotional abuse and physical brutalisation of girls and women, and while many dancehall songs promote the abuse, while the play decries it, neither does it suggest a remedy.
Dancehall could therefore reinforce the trauma. Where attention goes, energy flows, and grows. And, arguably, the lot of contemporary women and children is worse than it was in 1978. Government is now trying to halt a wave of the slaughter of women young and old. There was no such wave 40 years ago.
CULTURE OF BEATING
Even today, many Jamaicans believe in beating children. Some are children themselves - like Cedar Grove Academy student Deandra Edwards, who was reported in this newspaper a few days ago to be calling on Government not to abolish corporal punishment. With double irony, in light of Jesus' compassion for children, she uses the Bible to justify her claim that corporal punishment is necessary for the young.
She might have been disagreeing directly with a November 8 Gleaner story on a finding by the American Academy of Paediatrics that "beating children can lead to aggression, brain changes, substance abuse and suicidal behaviour in adulthood".
Bellywoman Bangarang ends with the agony of the four women who we see brutalised in the play having children in a labour ward. Two of the babies are girls. The mothers don't have the benefit of our hindsight, but we, looking back, know that those baby girls will probably grow up to be abused by the baby boys.
I do think the "transcendence of trauma" idea is more of a hope of the director than a reality in or outside the play. When I asked one of the lead actresses what she most wanted to convey in the play, she said its reality, that "they (audiences) are not just watching a show". And when I asked an audience member what most impressed her about the show, she said, "Its realism."
Quamina reveals a second reason - apart from the way the play was written - why the production is so real. She writes: "This journey was spirit-led. This journey was youth led.
Every choice was birthed in collaboration."
That's no doubt why the acting by every member of the cast is so good. So is the choreography (by Paul Newman and Shannan Lawes); the set (by Abena Chevannes); and costumes - dancehall style, of course (by Stacy Banton).
The production closes on Sunday. Theatre lovers will love it.