More murder mystery than teacher exodus - Teachers Wanted
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
October 24, 2004
The play Teachers Wanted, written and directed by Collette Jones, is a mixture of types recalling a kind of drama that was popular in the 1980s when local theatre was gaining ground in Guyana. It is a mixture of the cinematic, the popular thriller, horror and murder mystery, with a touch of psychological drama. The performance of it at the National Cultural Centre recently was entertaining, intriguing, sometimes quite dramatic and suspenseful, but with a number of flaws including uneven dialogue, a denouement and a resolution which did not quite resolve the complications of the plot, leaving unanswered questions and logical gaps.
It was interesting, bringing to the stage at this time a different kind of popular play from the social realism grass-roots drama that has dominated. A strong influence in Teachers Wanted seems to have come from the cinema not only in some of the techniques used by Jones, but also in ideas for plot.
It recalls those films with different versions of the murderous psychotic female on the loose: an antagonist to the heroine who is very friendly, extremely impressionable but extremely deceptive, schizophrenic and very dangerous. It is highly reminiscent not only of a kind of film, but of one film in particular. There are many echoes of the movie Single White Female, in which the impostor gradually invades every aspect of the heroine's life and space, practising to look and be exactly like her with the eventual objective of murdering and replacing her.
In Collette Jones's version, two identical twin sisters are separated as children and adopted by different guardians. One grows up as a convent girl, becomes a teacher and is preparing to take up a teaching post in Canada when her long lost sister turns up. This former close twin is now her opposite, having been exposed to abuse and a rough life while growing up, and is now deceptive, probably psychotic, with a criminal mind. The perceptive teacher soon discovers her sister's true colours, parts company with her and continues her plans to leave. But by this time the rogue sister has taken over her boyfriend who is also a teacher but a similarly deceptive criminal type with a shady past. He teams up with the sister, murders the teacher and takes over her new apartment. The sister replaces her at school and prepares to extend the impersonation by taking her place in Canada as well.
Although the author claims to be exploring the theme of the current waves of teachers leaving Guyana for the Caribbean and North America, the play does not live up to that promise. The convent teacher Joan (Sonia Yarde) has her visa and job offer for Canada, but that is where the play's interest in the theme ends. Its value lies in its topicality and its provision of crutches for the plot. The boyfriend Howard Mayers (Henry Rodney) and the radical sister, Jenny (Sonia Yarde) set out to steal her passport, visa, money and identity, with the likely intention of taking advantage of them as means of getting to Canada, but their motives are not entirely clear.
What Jones produced was a suspenseful crime thriller with a number of necessary accessories, aided and abetted by very convincing performances from Henry Rodney, La Vonne George as Sister Stewart, the nun who is principal of the school and, especially, Sonia Yarde who played both twins. It was much more about greed, crime and deceit than about teachers. The title puns on teachers wanted for jobs overseas, while in this play, they are on the run, wanted for murder, but it does not progress to any depth beyond that clever but simple interest. It has a bit more in its fascination with a few secrets of the Roman Catholic Church, and in its effective handling of the elements of suspense, the crime mystery and the commendable study of the twin sisters.
For this kind of drama, it was very well paced, although periodically held up by lengthy scene breaks. The set was meticulously realistic although, like all Guyanese sets, had a compulsion to use every inch of the extremely wide stage space, which is always quite unnecessary. Jones's talent as a visual artist was assiduously put to work on the teacher's new apartment - an expansive, elaborate luxury residence, which, though well designed and constructed, was one of the play's illogical questions. Why would the Canadians provide a luxury apartment in Georgetown for a teacher they had recruited to work in Canada? And why did the dramatist need to go to those lengths to set up such a flat that the essentials of the plot did not really demand?
However, while that wanted some logical explanation there were other elements that were obvious to the point of being predictable. One such is the role of Sister Stewart, whose real identity as the secret mother of the twins the play very badly tried to protect. It had to succeed in doing that in a work that depends on suspense and dramatic revelations at the end, but failed. It was, however, no fault of the actress La Vonne George, who was always believable and in command of all the right nuances in her supporting role. Similarly, Rodney had full control of the lead as a street-wise hustler cunning enough to be able to keep one step ahead of his partner in crime, Jenny, as soon as the two rogues began to plot to outmanoeuvre each other.
The double role of Joan and Jenny was an actress's dream during which Miss Yarde did not slumber. She rose up to the zenith of her considerable capabilities to assist the author in making the study of the taciturn, embittered, envious and slightly psychotic Jenny the most successful achievement in the play. She made the most of the schizophrenia that made it possible for her to become Joan, a character Jenny really longed to be. Even as the callous Jenny she was able to switch from playfulness, derisive mockery to ruthlessness to nostalgia, regret and a serious brown study all in a night's convincing work.
Even the other minor characters played by Simone Dowding and Shelly Bancroft did their part in supporting the undercurrent of mystery. One suspects, however, that they took us through many sequences for the mere purpose of finding the vital clue to Joan's murder that was Howard Mayers' undoing. Then, while Ms Dowding was delivering her lines in the assigned foreign accent, it might have helped if we could decipher what she was saying.
But dialogue was not a strength of the play. There were repetitions, triteness and a few astonishing utterances which confirmed that the writing could have been improved. Nigel Angus, the gay sidekick and eventual blackmailer (Andre Wiltshire), might have been there to exploit the marketability of funny gay characters, but he did serve as a foil for the unprincipled Mayers who was capable of anything, and provided Jenny with another reason for wanting to ditch him.
A number of the other details were not as easily explained. For example, it was announced in an early sequence that Jenny was pregnant, but thereafter forgotten as useless information that had no part to play in the action. Then there was a dance of demons at the beginning, haunting Joan as she slept. They returned at the end, surrounding Jenny as she lay unconscious. It was quite well done, but it might have been fanciful art or it might have been an attempt at symbolism. That was not made clear and remained game for any good guess from the audience. Did it link the two sisters in some way? Was it the coming to full circle of a wheel or cycle of evil? Or was it to take advantage of the presence of Miss George, who happens to be a dancer?
It is anybody's guess, although it did open up a number of workable artistic possibilities in a play that was popular, lively, intriguing, and a work of art, even if somewhat derivative.