Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
When I saw Ralph Holness a couple of months ago, he was sitting at the entrance of Stages Theatre, New Kingston. I found it symbolic that he was outside the theatre. Once one of the biggest names in theatre, Holness is now retired.
He was waiting, he told me, to see Paul Beale - now one of the biggest names in theatre. A very popular television series which Beale wrote, produced and directed, Joint Tenants, recently ended its second season. Up to last week two of his plays, Court House Drama and The Student, were on stage.
I next encountered Holness a couple of weeks later, this time inside the theatre. We were there as two of Beale's roomful of guests for the opening of The Student, Beale's latest play which he also wrote directed and produced. He's an excellent comic actor, too.
Holness and Beale go back a long way. The second in Beale's very successful series of Unda Mi Nose plays, Unda Mi Nose 2, was produced by Holness. It earned for the playwright the Actor Boy Award for Best Roots Play for 1991.
Ironically, Beale has always denied that he writes 'roots' plays. He calls his plays comedies or comedy-dramas. Roots plays are, of course, comedies - of the type known worldwide as farces - so really roots plays are Jamaican farces. Undoubtedly, Beale writes (or used to write) Jamaican farces. Does it matter that he rejects the term 'roots' play for those farces? After all, as Shakespeare asks (through Juliet), "what's in a name?"
The term 'roots' was very important to Holness, who probably coined and certainly popularised it in the context of Jamaican theatre over a period of about 20 years. That makes the term both useful and important to the theatre historian.
Holness and I, as well as the roomful of guests, thoroughly enjoyed The Student. Since it contains about equal amounts of humour and seriousness it could be categorised as comedy-drama.
Beale, a teacher for 16 years, almost certainly drew upon that experience for material used in the play. It stars Trudy Bell as Melcita, the student of the title, along with colleague cast member from Joint Tenants, Joanna Johnson, who plays 18-year-old Tanya. Also on stage are Dennis Hall (Mr Stone, a Rastafarian mathematics teacher), Dacoda Mitchell (Catherine, Tanya's mother, a nurse) and Geddes Vassel (Winston, Tanya's stepfather and a farmer).
The play begins slowly and, when I saw it, ran too long. Thirty minutes or so should have been cut off and the trimming should be from the early section. Act 2 is pretty okay; there the real story starts unfolding rapidly and action gets tight and suspenseful.
The main plot concerns Tanya's efforts to develop a romance with Mr Stone. Her problem is that he is a very principled man who feels a certain distance should be kept between student and teacher.
Tanya truly likes Mr Stone, but she has a more urgent reason for wanting him as her boyfriend. As she tells him and her unbelieving mother, Winston has been looking at her "funny". We know this is true and we also see him give her a lot of money for ice cream and hear him warn her not to tell her mother.
Asked why not, he replies "You're a bright girl. You'll figure it out."
Tied in with the main plot are subplots about the family's financial problems, which are serious enough for Catherine to want to go abroad to earn more money, and the efforts of the outspoken, a willful Melcita to fit in with her new family.
The characters are both clearly drawn and varied. Catherine and Tanya speak like middle-class folk. Melcita is the opinionated, pedantic character we know from the television series. Winston is a blunt, Patois-speaking countryman and Mr Stone is a rule-governed Rastaman.
There is an inconsistency, however, in the playing styles. Three characters (Winston, Catherine and Tanya) are realistic. However, Bell (Melcita) and Hall (Mr Stone) often venture into farcical - and thus 'rootsical' - playing, Bell with her trademark extra-high, nasal voice and Hall with exaggerated hops, skips and gestures designed to elicit laughs.
Hall breaks what's known in theatre as 'the fourth wall' and deliberately plays to the audience. The others actors pretend the audience is not there, watching through that invisible wall.
When the great Trevor Rhone did that sort of farcical directing in his masterwork Old Story Time (in the scene where Len, a PhD, dons coat and hat to disguise himself while speaking on the phone to an obeahwoman), it was unforgivable. But you can forgive Beale; The Student is part comedy, after all, so a bit of farce is not too out of place.
The set and the (numerous) costumes of The Student are realistic, though the room is a little sparse for a lower middle-class home.
Beale has come a long with both set and costumes since he produced Unda Mi Nose 3 at Ward Theatre in 1994. That show definitely had a 'rootsy' look. There were standing mikes for the actors (though many kept turning away). Upstage a yellow wall stretched from one side of the stage to the other, with only a couple of doors and a window offering relief to the yellowness. Down stage there was a small table and the obligatory bed.
The set was rootsy, minimalist and unattractive. However, the outfit of the main character, Mass Joe, was anything but minimalist - on his initial entrance alone the countryman was dressed in red pants, sneakers, a green jacket, yellow shirt, a brown tie and a grey cap.
Audiences loved that play. Beale is a very clever writer, whether he's writing 'roots' or comedy-dramas, and audiences for The Tenant love it, too. It runs Fridays through Sundays at Stages Theatre.