A positive, disturbing picture
Arts on Sunday
by Alim A. Hosein
September 1, 2002
Last week we made reference to two recent pieces of work, which attempt, each in its own way, to dramatize the current period of crime and disharmony in Guyana. One is a poem 'Mudhead, Painter' by Michael Gilkes and the other a play, Is We Big People by Fitzroy Tyrrell. Last week we carried the poem, which Gilkes pre-faces with the words, "so my response to those who say our country has gone to the dogs, is this poem." It paints a picture of the community of Buxton/Friendship in happier times, yet unspoilt by racial conflict, as it was, preserved in the poet's memory from 40 years ago. Today we notice the play, a topical social commentary/comedy, set in lawless Buxton at the present time.
Ironically, while Tyrrell's play draws its plot and message from the current crisis of violent crime that is running riot in the land, it is, itself, a significant production in the middle of a crisis that has befallen the local theatre. It stands as a lonely crusader battling to save the industry in lean times. Is We Big People is only the third theatrical production for the year, the second at the Cultural Centre and only the first full-length play staged at that venue for 2002.
Fitzroy and Jianna Tyrrell, the newest local dramatists, were also responsible for half of the plays staged last year, and have to be commended for having the courage to carry on when most others have thrown in the towel. It is still hoped that they, too, will not succumb to the prevailing disillusionment.
Tyrrell, established actor and newcomer director, has drawn on the eternal, oft-revisited Romeo and Juliet love theme for his dramatic conflict, and this makes his first written play rather predictable. He also comes dangerously close to falling flat in yet another attempt by a local playwright to turn the newsworthy events of a problem-plagued society into art.
What saves it from that disaster is that it does not try to fictionalise known events in the undramatic documentary fashion seen in previous attempts by other playwrights.
Instead, the social climate is used as a backdrop for the conflict. Close references to the events often became heavy-handed intrusiveness. For example, when a Buxtonian youth, trained by his parents to be aggressive, confrontational and violent, protests in one sequence about the negative way his people are regarded by the wider society, one did not hear a dramatic character, but the playwright speaking. His declarations that Buxtonians are human like everyone else and deserve better treatment came over as an obvious message from author to audience.
In Tyrrell's plot, a middle-class lawyer (Henry Rodney), his nagging, overbearing wife (Desiree Edghill-Adams) and his daughter, a UG art student (Tamara Rodney), are forced by sudden circumstance to take temporary residence in a house they own in Buxton. They also own the property next door, occupied by an extremely warlike working class Buxtonian family (John Phillips, Sheron (Cadogan) Taylor and Amsterdam), with whom they are locked in a bitter dispute over tenancy. The lawyer's residency in the village is painfully prolonged because the police in pursuit of notorious armed bandits, have left his Prashad Nagar house torn up by bullets following a recent raid. The well-worn and predictable sub-plot in the middle of all this, is that the middle-class daughter and the bellicose villagers' son grow close to each other and fall hopelessly in love.
This affair, of course, is a source of further conflict, added to the tenancy issue. What assists Tyrrell in the struggle to override the obvious tiresome cliche of his theme, is the way he manages to produce a play with a social objective. He effectively addresses social concerns that speak to his audience. Overworked as it might seem to a literary critic, it came alive before the Cultural Centre audience, achieving a communication with an experience that was obviously identifiable, delightful and instructive. It reinforced the love that audiences, historically, have always had for twice-told tales in familiar settings.
The play's populist title, Is We Big People, was clearly chosen with the box office in mind, but signals the main statement. Through the bonding that develops between the younger generation in the drama, it suggests that the parents set bad examples for their children to follow in a society in which racial hostility and narrow partisan political divisions are entrenched. The youths are taught to follow these traditions but this play implies that, while they may share the prejudices of their elders, they are more inclined to disregard them and allow humanity to prevail. Tyrrell preaches that the older generations need to learn some of the flexibility of the youth in order to be more understanding, perchance to reduce social strife and conflict.
This play, however, is primarily about social class. Its ploy is to throw the staid middle-class family in a working-class environment in which they become awkward, laughable misfits. Both the talented John Phillips and Sheron Taylor revelled in this.
Phillips mastered the art of the war-loving, cutlass-wielding peasant, although he followed the pattern of stereotypes upon which the play depended. But while using stereotypes, Tyrrell managed some creditable subtlety in their employment.
On the one side there is typical middle-class snobbery, especially exhibited by Mrs Edghill-Adams and Miss Rodney. On the other, there is the typical picture of the violent, offensive aggression and other characteristics associated with Buxtonians today. As writer and director, Tyrrell reveals the ironic similarity in the superiority and rank arrogance demonstrated by both classes.
There is a clash between what are really twin types of stubbornness.The lesson that the dramatist and director seemed to want to teach was, perhaps, responsible for the farcical styles that persisted in the play. It was caricature, and seemed an attempt to cash in on extra laughter.
Yet it must have been a directorial strategy to exploit humour and ridicule in what is mainly a comedy with satirical intentions. Mr Rodney's acting has always been attended by a characteristic woodenness, and in this play, it served as a useful foil, pitting the conservative, 'civilized' attorney against the farcical artificiality of his wife, as Edghill-Adams played it, and the uninhibited colour of his riotous neighbours.
Miss Rodney was able to handle the subtle transition that had to take place when her attitude towards the deliberate challenge posed by her neighbour began to change. They found their first common ground in art. But while it is understandable that the unschooled youth is a more gifted artist than his educated friend, one wonders how he acquired the learned scholarly vocabulary that he used in describing the techniques of drawing(?)
Yet the important thing about this play is that it is lonely in its battle to keep a local Guyanese theatre alive and that it definitely worked on stage before an involved, appreciative audience. That, after all, is what theatre is about.