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Stabroek News

published: Sunday | January 22, 2006

Zandrianne Maye gets down while Charles Hyatt observes in a December 2005 rehearsal for 'Hot Spot'. Basil Dawkins, who wrote 'Hot Spot', said while his plays are grounded in the Jamaican experience they are definitely not 'roots' plays.

Kesi Asher, Staff Reporter

THE TRADITIONAL 'roots play', like some aspects of dancehall music, has experienced the equivalent of 'The Taming of the Shrew'.

"Just like how the culture of the music is changing now and getting more cultural, the same with the plays. The slackness ting nuh really work again," said Everton Dawkins, playwright and manager of Dynamite Productions, producers of the play Passa Passa.

Obeah Wedding, Unda Mi Nose, Maama Man, Secret Lover and Scandal are some of the early productions which carved a niche for roots plays in Jamaica.

The culture quickly grew and more roots plays sprung up.

Man Fi Get Bun I and II, Dead Lef, Old Hen Young Rooster, Wickedest Slam, Dangerous Rooster, Con Man, Some Like it Not and Dead Lef Legacy are among the many roots plays which brought crowds to the Half-Way Tree Barn, Green Gables theatres and, for a while, the Regal Theatre.

Some aspects of roots plays made them unsuitable for children, as the language, content and physical activities on stage were of a mature nature.

For some in the theatre industry, the term 'roots play' is a misnomer. "There is no such thing as a roots play. I don't know what a roots play is. They are all Jamaican plays done in our Jamaican theatre. I don't know where the term 'roots play' come from," said Michael Nicholson, director of Jamaica 2 Rahtid, a musical revue currently playing at the Barn.

Started in the 1970s, roots plays have continued to be an entertainment option for many. The genre grew and peaked in the 1990s. Past and present players in the industry are Ralph Holness, Ginger Knight, Balfour Anderson, Michael Denton, Ian Reid, Paul Beil, Everton Dawkins, Buddy Pouyat and the late Hyacinth Brown.


Balfour Anderson, producer and jack of all theatrical trades, describes a roots play as "one that reflects the concerns of the people at the bottom of the society. It also utilises their language, which sometimes includes expletives, as it is a part of their vernacular. It is usually of a hilarious nature and the tempo is high, lots of energy."

Roots plays tend to feature a lot of physical contact among the characters and interaction with the audience is crucial. "These plays usually evoke sharp responses from the audience, to which the characters counteract. It's style is comedy or farce," said Mr. Anderson.

Despite the use of expletives in some roots plays, Balfour Anderson draws the line in his work. "We never use expletives in my plays. I can do whatever I want and it will come across to the audience in a very effective way, without using indecent language," said Balfour.

Some of the plays that he has done are Rip Off, Fudgy, Mix Up and Blenda, Two Bun One Time, Two To One, Viagra Power, Brownin, Virgin, Man Thief, and currently Sexy Food, which will be shown on Valentine's Day at the Ward Theatre.

"My plays are a delicate balance between the elite and the bawdy theatre. It employs some of what the ordinary man would want to see and it has a level of sophistication that is evident, so that everybody who sees the play can identify with the production," said Balfour Anderson.

Dynamite Productions is one company which has transformed its 'roots plays' into 'comedy plays.' Everton Dawkins, believes that plays should be a family affair.

"I don't really see my plays as roots plays, I like to call them comedy plays, because we do our plays for the entire family. Roots plays have come a step in the right direction. It nuh mek nuh sense the family want to go out and have fun and have to leave the kids and grandparents at home," Dawkins said.

Some of the plays produced by Dynamite Productions are Delilah, School Boy, It Wasn't Me, Passa Passa, More Passa Passa, Country Girl and Mr. Mention.

"Dynamite Productions is coming from the old school roots play, but made a U-turn. Man Fi Get Bun is a traditional roots play. After that we made a turn. It was an eye-opener for me, because children couldn't see it. From then on we changed the content of our plays," said Dawkins.

His eyes later fully opened by a patron and her 11-year-old daughter at The Girls Dem Sugar.

"A lady came and asked me why I didn't advertise the show for adults only. I said because it's a show that can be viewed by the entire family and she laughed and said 'I'm glad my daughter saw it, it's a show that many more teenage girls should watch, they could learn from it'," said Dawkins.

He later sought permission from the Ministry of Education to show the play in schools and renamed it School Boy. However, he observes that not many playwrights follow this path.

"Not all of them go in this direction. I think there is an attempt to clean it up. I think they realise that the public response is not really coming because of the slackness. If you really want to get the crowd to respond you have to clean up the act a little," said Dawkins.

The 'slackness' is not the only problem plaguing roots plays; the economy is also a factor.

"What happened in Jamaica is that the spending power of the smaller man has diminished significantly, which has affected not only theatre but entertainment generally. Therefore, in order to get people to come out, you have to spend heavily on mass appeal, advertising on television and in print," said Mr. Anderson.

Despite the issues affecting roots theatre, its adaptability keeps it current. "Roots plays have changed. It's an adaptable type of theatre; it deals with things that are happening now, it adapts to the environment. It deals with the concerns that are happening to the less fortunate. It thrives a lot on current events," said Balfour Anderson.

While roots theatre maintains current appeal, it has longevity. "I think the roots play definitely has a place. There are always a lot of people looking forward to the plays. Like the dancehall syndrome, which is very much a part of Jamaica's culture; it's never going away. Theatre will always be an outlet for creative expression, especially for the lower strata. It will grow because people always want to see this type of entertainment," said Anderson.

Basil Dawkins, play producer, also sees demand and supply at work. "If it survives it has relevance. Everything is market-driven. If people want it and it is being provided, once it is viable, it will do well. The consumer has choices; it's not about competition, everybody can survive. If the consumer doesn't like one type of play they can also see the other," said Dawkins.

In addition, elements of roots play have crossed over to what Mr. Anderson terms 'uptown plays'.

"Elements of the roots play have been injected in some uptown plays written for uptown audiences. They have also recruited the actors to play the roles. This roots aspect has helped to boost the patronage and acceptance of uptown plays," said Mr. Anderson. Anderson explains that 'uptown' and 'roots' plays have different acting styles, themes and actors.

Basil Dawkins describes his plays not as 'uptown', but as "current issue oriented dramas, with a generous serving of comedy".

"My plays are not roots plays. I'm definitely against expletives on stage. My plays reflect the concerns of all persons in society. I'm dealing with issues that, while rooted in the Jamaican experience, have a universal appeal. For example my play Hot Spot deals with the impact of globalisation," said Dawkins.

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