Theatre within story guidelines - A comparison of 'Divorce Papers' and 'Ol' Fyah Stick'
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
The late Trevor Rhone was generally recognised as Jamaica's best playwright.
Having been associated with Jamaican theatre for more than several capacities for over 50 years, my current top three are Patrick Brown, Basil Dawkins and Dahlia Harris.
The late Professor Rex Nettleford was fond of saying "you're only as good as your last work" about performing artistes. In this column, I would have liked to discuss the current works of the three playwrights.
Unfortunately, however, because of circumstances beyond my control, I am unable to assess the current Jambiz production, Brown's Saving Alligator High. I was able to attend the Dawkins and Harris productions Divorce Papers (Little Little Theatre) and Ol' Fyah Stick (The Theatre Place), respectively.
Over the decades, I have been taught by writer-educators Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris and, most recently, Kei Miller. Some of their succinct creative writing guidelines came back to me as I watched the plays.
Scott told one playwriting class "drama is a man in a mess" - that is, a man with a problem - and the story should show his efforts to solve it. Assessing a situation in one of my plays that was too easily resolved, Scott said audiences enjoy seeing characters in difficult situations, the tougher the better.
He gave us this three-section storyteller's model. First, put a man up a tree (get him into trouble), throw stones at him (worsen his situation), then bring him down (solve the problem). During our post-show chat, Dawkins mentioned the well-known maxim about dramatic incidents that a writer should "show, not tell".
Criticising a short story of mine, Morris reminded me that, conventionally, problems and mysteries introduced early into a tale are cleared up in the end. And Miller spoke about his admiration for the ability of a fellow Jamaican award-winning novelist, Marlon James, to continually "tighten the screws" on his character; that is (returning to Scott's metaphor) to keep pushing his characters further and further into the mess they're in.
I hope that these assessment tools will assist readers who attend plays, always bearing in mind that, by definition, creativity involves drawing new lines.
There is lot to laugh and think about in Divorce Papers and Ol' Fyah Stick. Similarly, Rhone was able to tackle serious subjects like race and class prejudice (in Old Story Time) and also "tek bad sinting mek laugh".
On one level, Divorce Papers takes a light-hearted look at a normally painful topic, divorce. The fractious couple, Agustus and Grace Goffe (Oliver Samuels and Ruth HoShing, respectively, when I saw the play) are separating for two reasons. She is a nag and he had an affair with the maid 25 years before the play's story begins.
At a deeper level, Dawkins, a man very concerned with spiritual issues, is examining forgiveness. If you don't forgive, he warns, you may make yourself ill. Without giving away too much of the story, I can say that one character pays a terrible price for being unforgiving.
Dawkins has also written comedy dramas (dramedies, he calls them) on serious topics like downtown versus uptown relationships, spousal abuse, infidelity, lesbian relationships and man's relationship with God, among others.
However, in Divorce Papers, I find he ignores too many of the guidelines I have been taught. First, the 'mess' that Dawkins puts Agustus and Grace in - the divorce - doesn't cause either of them anguish. True, Grace is angry when Gus serves her the divorce papers in the first scene, but, by the second, she has recovered sufficiently to be shown as interested in someone else. And it turns out that the interest had preceded the impending divorce.
Not Enough Suffering
Then in the middle of the play, when the writer should be "throwing stones at the main character" or "tightening the screws", Dawkins has already started finding solutions for their problems. That's too early and I can hear Dennis Scott saying that, in general, the characters don't suffer enough.
And, breaking the 'show, don't tell' rule, the characters talk about their problems much more than they act them out.
Both plays are domestic dramedies, but Ol' Fyah Stick is about a couple trying to get together, not separate. Joe Moore (Volier Johnson) and Betty (Deon Silvera), his helper, have loved each other from 'school days' and now desperately want to get married. They are getting old.
However, the other two characters in the play - Joe's daughter Margaret (Harris), and Delroy Bailey (Desmond Dennis), a security guard for the complex in which Joe lives, are determined to keep them apart. Margaret believes that Betty is not good enough for her father; Delroy wants Betty for himself.
The play's serious issue is class prejudice and, because the main characters really struggle with the problem - for a lot is at stake - we, the audience, get emotionally involved. When I watched Ol' Fyah Stick, patrons continually shouted advice to the characters. When that happens, you know the play is working.
I should say a word of welcome to commercial theatre to Dennis. Only 22 years old, he is still at university (where he has won a couple of acting awards) and, based on his superb performance in Ol' Fyah Stick, if he sticks with theatre, he has a bright future.