‘Behind the Pulpit’ – An intriguing, energetic gospel drama
After a three-weekend run in the tiny Blue Room in the Phoenix Theatre complex on Haining Road, the intriguing, energetic gospel drama, Behind the Pulpit, is to be shown to larger audiences than can hold in the 80-seat theatre. Discussions are also being held to mount it in churches and to rework it as a television mini-series.
Written by Brian Johnson, who is much better known as an actor than a writer, the production marks his entry as a playwright on the commercial scene. It is also the initial offering of a brand-new theatre company, Lighthouse Productions, whose principals are Johnson, Akeem Mignott, Tyane Robinson and Petrina Williams. The first three are educators, while Williams is an attorney-at-law.
Mignott co-directed the play with Johnson, co-designed the costumes with Samantha Thompson, and designed the set and lighting. Over the next year or so, he will be able to provide only long-distance assistance to the new company. He leaves the island next month for London, England, where, at Goldsmith University, he will be pursuing an MA in applied theatre: drama in educational community and social context.
Williams and Thompson are the two actresses in the play (not counting non-speaking extras) and they play Bishop Patricia Nobles and Sister Imogene Grant, respectively. The two actors are Johnson and Miguel ‘DJ Rebirth’ Campbell, who, respectively, play Troy Nobles, the bishop’s husband, and Brother Mark, a church member.
The story’s focus is Bishop Nobles, whose problems multiply as the action unfolds. As bishop-elect, when the play opens, she has opposition in the church to her actually becoming bishop, just because she is a woman. The argument that Troy and Brother Mark have in an early scene about God’s gender and the extent to which the Bible sanctions female leadership in the church, reflects the conflicting views.
Troy himself is conflicted. Though he might not think women should be bishops, he sees an advantage to his wife being elevated to that position, as she could then make him the church’s pastor. That post will get him more respect, he tells her, as he tries to blackmail her into granting his request.
Bishop Nobles also discovers that the church has huge debts, owing $0.5 million to the Jamaica Public Service. She doesn’t find out how that came about until close to the end of the play.
Those problems, along with everyday issues like health, proper eating habits, trust in marriage and forgiveness arise, all helping to build a realistic story. Assisting the play’s general verisimilitude are the excellent acting by the cast and the cleverly designed set.
Though the stage is the smallest in any Jamaican theatre, it easily and efficiently transforms from the Noble’s living room to their church and back. The living room’s small fish tank with live fish is a good symbol of the genuineness of the set.
The play has a weakness that is common to other Christian plays: Troy and Patricia suddenly turn to prayer to heal their deteriorating relationship. That sort of solution, called deus ex machina (the god from the machine), was sometimes used in the theatre of ancient Greece, but is frowned on in regular drama today.
As the name suggests, it involves a god being brought on stage to solve the characters’ problems. Today’s audiences want characters to solve their own problems. Johnson is aware of the danger and gives Bishop Nobles and Sister Grant an interesting discussion about the nature of miracles. During it, one of the plays best lines is uttered by Grant: “Tablet [pills] a miracle?”
Robinson, an experienced theatre practitioner, will be the main producer of the Montego Bay staging of the show, on a date to be announced. He started in theatre with the Jamaica Youth Theatre group, then went on to The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, where he did a lot of work with the annual Tallawah Dramatic Arts Festival. Now in St James, he was a cultural organiser for the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission in the parish and currently lectures in linguistics at the Institute of Caribbean Studies at UWI’s western campus and Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College.