Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
An important - though probably subconscious - motivation for going to the theatre is to see how other people deal with their problems. Fortunately, in recent weeks those of us (most of us?) facing hard times in Jamaica have had a chance to attend two highly enjoyable productions showing very different responses to harsh circumstances.
Both productions are set in the inner city. You know that because rusty zinc fences and sparse, beat-up furniture feature prominently in their sets. Though having that commonality, the playwrights diverge in their approaches to the adverse conditions.
Ginger Knight encourages us to laugh with his comedy Boy Blue (at Theatre Place, Haining Road). Dahlia Harris (who wrote, directed, produced and acts in her play) has a title, God's Way 2: Carlton's Redemption, which indicates the path she thinks we should take: "God will take care of you".
CORRUPT BOYS IN BLUE
Knight's characters are definitely not ones to emulate. All are corrupt, even the title character Boy Blue, a 'blue seam' policeman (played by Oliver Samuels, who also directs and produces the show). The other characters are Hyacinth (Audrey Reid), Precious (Melisha Holness), Bella Speed (Dennis Titus) and Stanley (Dean Martin).
The two men are professional thieves; the women, who depend on them, are receivers of stolen goods. That makes the inner-city yard in which they operate a veritable den of thieves.
It is unusual - even unprecedented - for all the characters in a Jamaican play to be criminals. Playwrights (and in fact writers generally) find it useful to mix 'good guys' with 'bad guys' and give us a chance to identify with the former. But Knight, clever playwright that he is, avoids the tried and true and still makes Boy Blue entertaining.
His characters, though criminal, are not evil; they do not repulse us. On the contrary, because they are very human, with needs and desires just like us, we find it easy to empathise with them in their difficulties. Besides, they are funny, and as we laugh - not only at, but with them - we are further pulled into their lives.
There is only one dyed-in-the-wool criminal, Kayla (Nadean Rawlins) in God's Way 2, the sequel to Harris' award-winning God's Way. The other characters are consciously trying to stay on the straight and narrow, though the title character Carlton (Carl Samuels) slips and slides a bit.
The playwright engineers Carlton's redemption in a fashion that is dramatically unsatisfying - through prayer. The technique is a version of one used in some plays of ancient Greece, called deus ex machina. Meaning "the god from the machine", the phrase refers to the practice of transporting a god character into the final scene by means of a crane (the machine) so that he can solve some human problem. It is used figuratively nowadays to refer to the arbitrary entrance of some force or person external to the main plot to solve a problem.
Orthodox drama has characters solving their own problems; that's how audiences can learn. But God's Way and God's Way 2 are explicitly 'gospel dramas' and, in those plays, audiences find it satisfying to have prayer alone solve problems. So Sunday night's audience cheered when Carlton - after struggling for nearly two hours with his problems - falls to his knees, prays for two minutes and is suddenly, unexpectedly, released from his bondage (in the form of Kayla).
The next and final scene is pure sweetness and light. Carlton is problem-free and having a pleasant meal with his previously unhappy wife, Valerie (Harris), and Deacon (Ainsley Whyte). If those cheering were thinking like critics, they might have wondered why Carlton hadn't asked for God's help earlier and saved himself and Valerie weeks of distress.
Non-gospel drama audiences must hope that Harris doesn't confine herself to that type of theatre. Despite its name, her first play, Judgement, was not one. However, according to the printed programme for God's Way 2, Harris has embarked on annual gospel productions. Since the wicked Kayla was not in prison at the end of God's Way 2, maybe there'll be a God's Way 3.
The mission statement for Harris' company, DMH Productions, gives the general theatre public hope. It speaks of developing and presenting "high-quality contemporary theatre services (that) "enrich the culture and lifestyle of the Caribbean community," supporting "creative, relevant, and exciting theatre activity", the training and exposure of arts professionals, and celebrating "the essential power of the theatre to illuminate our common humanity".
Nary a word there about annual gospel productions. But can Harris, if she is going to continue to produce, direct and act in her plays, find time to write more than one play a year?
Jamaica did have one other multi-talented theatre practitioner who tried writing, producing, directing and, occasionally, acting in his own plays twice a year. But he only lasted a decade or so before he threw in the towel.
Before she spreads herself too thin, Harris should have a talk with Balfour Anderson.