Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
The creators of a new musical drama which appeals for tolerance towards homosexuals say they plan to take it "into communities and churches and to street corners" around the island. It's sure to be controversial and will probably get a hostile reception from many.
Happily, there was no hostility towards the show, Who Am I? Man? Let's Talk ..., when it opened at the School of Dance, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) last Friday night. On the contrary, the audience's response was overwhelmingly positive.
As it should have been. The production is excellent.
Jointly written, directed and produced by former School of Drama students Webster McDonald and Alwyn Allen (whose stage name is Umoja Ulu), it comprises dramatic sketches, songs, instrumental music, and movement.
Its numerous skits, featuring Allen and McDonald as the main characters, examine the symptoms and causes of various domestic and societal problems. They include (in addition to society's negative attitude to homosexuality) the treatment of girls and women, absent or domineering fathers, and low self-esteem in and loutish behaviour by young men.
Violence permeates all the situations examined, with the gun often being a part of the physical abuse of both males and females, especially the young. Most - if not all - of the action takes place in poor urban communities.
Irony and misguided attitudes abound, as the following quotations illustrate.
"Mi cyan mek anybody know seh me have dese feelings," declares a gunman about his homosexual urges.
Says a chauvinistic father to his son: "Bwoy nuffi wash an clean. Ah gal fi do dat."
Youth to girl: "Man nuh use boots (condoms)" and "me can have any amount a gal me want."
In one poignant episode in the space of five minutes we see a young boy happily interacting with his grandmother, him defying her as a rebellious teenager and then, as an adult, weeping uncontrollably at her death. We can understand his love-hate relationship with her - she was all he had, as his parents were absent.
Solutions are both suggested and stated. They sometimes come, in dialogue and song, from the chorus. It is led by the show's musical director, Samantha Thompson, a School of Drama student. Last weekend, the singing was accompanied by an instrumental trio comprising M'Bala (percussions) Keithi Cunningham (drums), and Patrick Baker (violin).
Additionally, because this is definitely community drama aimed at solving societal problems and not just at entertaining, when the show ends, the actors themselves also tell the audience the lessons to be learnt.
On Friday, McDonald declared "we can exist without tearing down one another." Thompson said she had learnt tolerance. And Allen stated, "Hate speech is not freedom of speech. Let us respect all people. Let's start becoming our brother's keeper."
He added that, when the production tours Jamaica, the producers want "to start conversations about things we often sweep under the carpet." Expanding on the point in a later conversation with me, he said: "We want people to be comfortable in sharing their own personal stories and we want to give people a voice to advocate against all forms of violence".
High and low moments
Since McDonald and Allen started working on the production in August, there have been high and low moments. Portions of the show were presented at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts' 8 X 10 production in September and at the EMC's fair Gungo Walk, to good reception.
However, McDonald said, four performers who started rehearsing later dropped out as "they couldn't deal with the material."
Who Am I? Man? Let's Talk ... actually grew out of the final-year production, Who Am I? which McDonald, the first student to graduate from the EMC with a BFA degree in theatre arts, staged for examiners last year. He and Allen subsequently teamed up and decided to expand the one-act, one-man presentation into a full-length show.
In his director's note in the printed programme, McDonald states that the show calls for "urgent social intervention" to address the plight of many men and boys in the society. He points out that they, too, and not only women and girls, are often "oppressed and marginalised" for reasons of gender and sexuality.
Hopeful that the production will help change society's attitudes, McDonald writes: "I optimistically envision that more people will come forward and tell their stories so as to achieve personal healing, while healing others and paving the way for those who are afraid to be themselves." He himself was fearful as a boy, he says, because of the treatment he got in his community.
Associate director/choreographer Ricardo A. Nicholas, whom many will know from performing arts group Ashe, assisted the directors immensely with moving the cast in powerful, dynamic waves around the stage.
Thompson leads the chorus in spirituals and other evocative songs which are appropriate for the drama's many skits. In her programme note, she writes: "The music of the show was carefully orchestrated to fit the thematic issues and textures of the situations depicted."