New playwrights and hasty scripts
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
May 2, 2004
In reviewing the most recent theatre on the local stage in Guyana, a number of factors become obvious. The kind of popular plays that have developed inside the last twenty years clearly dominate almost to the exclusion of any other type. These are market-oriented, tailored to attract the mass audience and are therefore designed to produce what the playwrights deduce that they want to see. The drama that results from this revolves around laughter, mainly farce, with an attempt to present familiar situations through melodrama, various thrills and a reflection of the popular culture.
This trend has been well illustrated in the most recent plays at the Cultural Centre: Ras Leon Saul's For Better For Worse, Errol Chan's Shattered, Godfrey Naughton's Living A Lie and Ken Danns' The Wedding. These productions emerged, riding on a new wave when there were signals that the popular audience was returning to the theatre after a long lean period.
The Guyanese theatre of the moment is thus quite clearly audience-driven. It follows a common trend that developed long ago in other parts of the Caribbean, notably Jamaica, and, in fact, is really only consistent with what has been the essence of theatre in the western world for centuries (witness the morality plays, the Elizabethan theatre including Shake-speare, the eighteenth-century 'operas,' the English music hall). The question then is, what is wrong with this trend in Guyana? And the answer is that vital elements are missing. This was suggested by the behaviour of the audience which stopped going to the plays after seeing too many repeats of the same thing. It exposed the ephemeral quality of the plays which have really only been 'for the moment,' lacking qualities that would make them immortal. The audience found entertainment, but very little that was new or refreshing. There were new playwrights with hasty scripts, a scarcity of artistic and technical proficiency, and an inability to move beyond funny lines and turn the moment into lasting statements in drama.
Shattered, written and directed by Errol Chan, who also played the lead role, helps to underscore the point. This is the debut production for Chan whose previous experience is as an actor who came through the ranks in the Theatre Guild workshops. He has, therefore, been exposed to the rudiments of techniques in modern theatre, and this is reflected in what he attempted in his play. It was in some ways different from the average effort because it tried something stylistic in its opposite reality that the audience sees, and the subtle humour in Lorenzo perpetually going for interviews but never getting a job.
However, both play and production had glaring flaws because of inexperience and insufficient technical ability. There was too much documentary not quite transformed into drama. The use of the poetic was a further attempt to document ghetto life, and it did not work when Miss Dowding or Sherah Liverpool as Rakim's girlfriend had to break into dance movement or episodes of verse awkwardly imposed within a starkly realistic structure. The inconsistent use of mime did not work either.
The important contrast between the middle class and working class environments was non-existent because there was no attempt to stage it, or to assimilate the ghetto. The one exception to this was the very convincing acting of Jermaine Jones as JJ, the small-time cocaine pusher, always broke and talking of making it rich.
Godfrey Naughton's Living A Lie exhibited the weight of much more experience in acting and complexity of production. Yet it was still the flawed work of a new playwright's first effort, and the surprisingly weak staging on a surprisingly inept set by an established and experienced director who ought to know better. The play carried more power and excited the audience more than Chan's, but almost like Leon Saul's, its plot is full of holes, gaps and inconsistencies.
The very talented Jennifer Thomas plays Lynette Langston, a successful lawyer described as sexually insatiable, who strikes up an affair with her clerk, David (Sheldon Brathwaite) an unlearned, street-wise character, whom she puts up in an apartment. Meanwhile at home, her husband (Godfrey Naughton), crippled in a car accident, endures his wife's activities while praying that she will soon give up her nightly visits to David and return to being wife and mother. He enlists the help of the children (Mekeisha Naughton, Rodero and Ricardo Holder) and his nurse (Mignon Lowe) a spiritualist pastor, to bring her back. But David also finds himself forced to satisfy the needs of Kirsten (Robert Hoban), a gay musician, as well. This complication eventually causes Mrs Langston to throw him out and reunite with her family, including a husband who rapidly regains his movement and other powers.
It is a complicated comedy with all the thrills for a grateful audience: sex, laughter, farce, gangster intrigue, a homosexual character and a standard stereotyped spirit possession sequence. It all worked famously for the audience who were loudly involved in its high- points and sensuality. But it was played on a lazy, unimaginative set that was appalling. There was little effort to differentiate between bachelor apartment and affluent middle-class home, and blocking occasionally fell apart, while Brathwaite, an audience favourite, was thus encouraged in his repetitive and excessive over-acting.
The pace and tone were good and for the most part, characters were well handled. But there were several puzzles and unclear loose ends in a plot that drew on American soap-opera melodrama. The complications were untidy. David narrated the story of how his affair with the lady lawyer began, yet there were suggestions that he was blackmailing her husband who was paying him. Then the boyfriend and the musician forced the husband to agree to help in a money-laundering scheme under circumstances that were equally unclear.
Next, the musician was wealthy enough to be throwing thousand dollar US bills around, yet he seemed strangely destitute, lacking in resources and dependent on David. Then, was the husband pretending to be impotent? If he was working to get his wife back, it is not clear why he would do that.
Or was it that some actors were inaudible or garbled in their speech, causing vital lines to be lost? Nevertheless, there was an over-reaching effort on Naughton's part to load the play with as much as he could to keep the audience satisfied.