Dramatizing the place of women
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creigton
April 28, 2002
Articles on the arts
A dramatic performance by Sheryn Hylton Parker at the Cara Inn later this week entitled Women, Pieces, Places brings into focus at a significant time, the work of a range of established writers who have treated the social and personal place of women against the pressures of different environments. Re-reading some of these was an instructive experience since it registered quite vividly, and sometimes startlingly, how closely they are interconnected, and how eloquently they speak to contemporary society.
The first of these writers is Lorna Goodison who is one of the most prominent voices on these related issues in the West Indian literature of the last 20 years. This Jamaican poet has explored the woman’s contribution to resistance through history, in poems like ‘Nanny,’ the sense of loyalty and the self-sacrificing fortitude of her own mother in ‘For My Mother - May I Inherit Half Her Strength,’ and the concerned woman who sends a message “to the man who has employed her son,” unaware that he has been recruited as a gunman and tragedy lurks round the corner. Against this kind of hostile background, the resolute voice of Goodison is strident and assured.
In ‘Heartease’ she asserts her place and her independence. She resists stereotyping and hypocrisy to articulate a journey taken into self awareness, social and personal consciousness. This is a good thematic statement because it claims the place that many of the women in the literature are seeking. ‘Heartese’ has achieved the self-discovery that is the focus of the literary and dramatic selections put together for the performance of Women, Pieces, Places.
Black American writer, Ntozake Shange, produced a choreopoem called for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. It speaks to the period of the American Civil Rights Movement when segregation was just being dismantled, but one excerpt from the ‘Lady in Brown’ (one of the personae in the poem) is relevant to this growing up and search for liberation. A precocious girl of 9 or 10 discovers the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the ex-slave who led the successful Haitian Revolution, when she sneaks into the adult reading room of the neighbourhood library. She fantasizes about this encounter, giving it the kind of suggestive undertones of a child who feels, with pride, that she has stolen something from the adults.
Like many of the other women in West Indian literature, however, ‘Lady in Brown’ is also seeking liberation. In her childish fantasy, she begins to pursue it through myth/legend/history, running away from her troubled home with an imaginary Toussaint until she grows to realize that the reality of resistance and liberation resides right in her own town.
Quite prominent in West Indian literature, are novels about growing up in the colonial society, which bear close comparison with Shange’s narratives about growing up in the USA of the 50s and 60s. Erna Brodber’s Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home is one of these. Brodber, however, belongs to the more recent development in Caribbean fiction, and adds to this corpus, the specific focus on womanhood. It is a complex book, but one may extract the specific sequence dealt with in the dramatic production. A 10 year-old girl enjoys long, hot summers romping in an ever-green pastoral setting, totally unaware of her growing up and encroaching sexuality. The first signs of it are a total mystery to her, yet it lurks in the wings like the “goat-footed balloonman” in E E Cummings’ poem ‘in-Just spring,’ often called ‘Chanson Innocence’ (song of innocence).
Brodber’s work is juxtaposed with Kamau Brathwaite’s. His famous and very humorous poem ‘The Dust’ is a dramatic piece featuring a self-assured country woman who lives a robust life, not the immature girl of Jane and Louisa. Yet, like the girl, she is unable to comprehend other mysteries of life, such as the dust from the volcanic eruption of Montpelier as related to her by her grandmother. The metaphorical hang-overs from this still darken her world, filling her with a fear of the unknown. Religion provides her with all the solace she thinks she needs, but no answers to such mysteries.
Religion is the salvation for the leading lady in Derek Walcott’s play A Branch of the Blue Nile, which is based on the dramatist’s work with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop which he left in the late 1970s under acrimonious circumstances. Ironically, he later made his peace with them through the production of this same play in 1983, despite his portrayal of some of their members, fictionalized in the drama. The lead, Sheila Harris, is a gifted actress who gives up acting for the church because she became afraid that a character she was playing, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, was stealing her soul. In her search for self-assurance and peace, she took precarious refuge in the church.
Religion runs through the work of these writers as an opiate against hostile environments sought out by women. In an excerpt written by Sheryn Hylton Parker from a past production, Bring Me Tomorrow, the persona could not relate to the concept of God taught to her in the Catholic mass. When she finds this kind of spiritual fulfilment, she found it in man, not in a concept she could not touch. Yet, when he fails her, she remembers with longing, the peace found by her grandmother in the same God she could not comprehend.
Jean Rhys has been acclaimed as the Caribbean’s foremost woman writer and she is well known for her series of vulnerable heroines. One of the most striking stories in her last published collection, Tales of the Wide Caribbean, is ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ which exposes immigration, racism, exploitation and injustice. It is a tale narrated by a placeless, lonely immigrant; an alien wandering in London but determined to assert her right to be there. She seems resigned to the fact that she does not belong, yet is not prepared to give up. She finds some inner well-being by taking personal possession of a song that she hears coming from an unknown singer in a prison; it possesses her and she claims it as hers.
Although the characters in each of these works are different, they still share many similarities, which make them all a part of the same journey into self-discovery. This most recent focusing of women in literature has been around for decades, yet it remains a commanding subject. Certainly the authors mentioned here have each added something new or different to the study which, never mind the decades, if not the centuries, is still topical.