Awe Society 14 A shortfall in useful social analysis
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
October 31, 2004
Awe Society, the annual dramatic series written and produced by Ken Danns returned to the National Cultural Centre last week. The produc-tion has settled down in format with a series of skits and monologues in the first half of the programme followed by a one-act play in the second. It is a type of revue but not quite satire, although it dramatises topical and social issues in the shorter pieces while the play is also likely to be some element of social realism. It is popular entertainment from which the crowds over the years have come to expect good laughs.
This year's revision, Awe Society 14, was directed by Desiree Edghill and gave a good indication of where the series has reached. It has developed into a robust, well-managed performance with the right pace and all-round competence in performance. It provided so much humour that the audience came to expect it in every piece, and was poised to laugh even at issues that were supposed to evoke grave concern. But while the audience was not prepared to be serious, neither Danns nor Edghill did enough to persuade them, since the style of both writing and acting was heavily directed at laughter, which is a strong point of Danns, although he did not always manage to utilise it as a vehicle for serious social commentary.
The most glaring example of this was a dramatic monologue depicting a boy watching his father battering his mother. The boy pleads with the father to stop the brutal beating, but the man apparently kills the woman and then turns on the boy, forcing him to drink poison. Danns was obviously drawing on the very prevalent social problem of violent domestic abuse, putting on stage a reflection of the many instances reported in the press of murders and suicides including infanticide, where children have been fed poison by a father who had just killed their mother.
But the audience was never made to tune in to the horror, the pathos or the tragic elements, and shrieked with laughter throughout the monologue. They were aided and abetted by the style of acting, which was comic, and by many of the words, phrases and utterances, which lent themselves to comic portrayal. It was just the wrong presentation for the subject. It started with the title of the piece, 'Ow Daddy,' an unfortunate choice which set the wrong tone from the beginning, and went straight downhill from there.
Yet there were pieces in which humour worked appropriately to instruct the audience, such as in the skit about HIV and AIDS. It was funny, but well organised to show the dire consequences of having a fling with a flashy stranger. It made the point about girls who are too easily impressed by appearances and money, who allow themselves to be set up by friends and are too ready to go to bed on 'blind dates.' In this case, even the title worked well with its effective irony and pun, so that 'Blind Date' was the best piece in Awe Society 14. It did not preach or get stuck in a 'message,' but managed humour, irony and even ridicule to top social commentary with a warning.
The dialogue on illiteracy was a similarly effective use of laughter to comment on a significant issue, while the portrait of the frustrated mother was also good as an appropriate light-hearted treatment of stress caused by social pressure. Then there were those pieces which were hilarious and good for comic entertainment, such as the take-off on CNS Channel 6 and the forever funny gay transvestites. But in addition to those popular comic pieces, there were others that did little more than reflect social phenomena and situations without any analysis or artistic statement. Some of these, like the opening monologue 'Hurricane' were quite lengthy but went nowhere. They were repetitive and linear, starting out with one idea, which was repeated without any shaping or development beyond the recitation of a long list of various ills of the country.
This shortfall in the achievement of useful social analysis through the medium of drama also affected Danns's one-act play, The Gun, which was the showpiece of the programme. It is a play for the moment, depending on topical reference for its success. It is specifically dated since it was written to reflect specific events of two years ago, viz, the outbreak of criminal violence and gun crimes. Yet it still bears relevance to the realities which continue, examining, as Ken Danns explains, "the lives of a dysfunctional urban family that is caught up in the crime wave of banditry and murders."
The staging, directed by Ms Edghill, was quite vivid and, as Danns promised, gave "a graphic feel for the violence, fears and senseless killings." It is among his most dramatic plays and made a telling impact, assisted by performance that was electrifying.
There was a very effective team of actors who understood the characters and maintained the pace of urgency that the drama demanded. In particular, Sonia Yarde, Michael Ignatius, Rushella La Cruz, Rajan Tiwari, Henry Rodney and Neaz Subhan interpreted the roles of the family members in challenging social circumstances. They played out the theatre in the lives of these people tangled in a cycle of crime with bandits, war lords and the corrupt elements among the police, communicating both tension and thrills that delighted the audience.
As he did in an earlier play, Black Clothes, Danns produced a relevant theatre that engages these realities and illustrates what is valuable about the Guyanese popular plays. However, having done that, he fails to take it further. The Gun, having so vividly exposed depraved social situations, fails to create "understanding which can lead to positive changes," as Danns said he hoped to do. He did not manage to use the theatre to achieve this goal. On the contrary, he has produced an amoral play, which did nothing to challenge negative attitudes among the Guyanese population. Instead, it entrenched some of the most destructive elements in popular thinking.
The playwright's intention, however, was not to do that, but to expose the brutality and ruthlessness of corrupt rogue policemen, who behave just like the criminals they are supposed to bring to justice. They make victims of the unprivileged people they are expected to protect and drive them into a life of crime. The play highlights all the elements of social depravity aggravated by the callous acts of the police. These are then used to justify banditry and the killing of policemen.
While Danns set out to comment on corrupt detectives, who are the villains of the piece in this play, he does nothing to suggest that good cops exist. The 16-year-old boy who guns down nine policemen is loudly applauded and ends the play as the great hero riding out with the gun to succeed his father and continue the reign of banditry and violent crime.
In this play the criminals are heroic while those not inclined to join the gang are portrayed as weak and cowardly. The soldier who was a member of the force stationed to keep order in Buxton shows no sign of joining in any criminal violence, but he is the most pathetic character in the play, starkly lacking in courage and conviction and ends the play a useless, ridiculed whimp.
The characters speak in glowing terms about 'the zone,' the criminal stronghold in Buxton. The infamous five Mashramani Day escapees are hailed as champions who give gifts of money to the people and are actually described as being "like Robin Hood." Armed robbers, drug traffickers, murderers and rapists are role models.
These were some of the most disappointing aspects of the play The Gun. The truth is, it reflects a reality because many people in Guyana see it that way. Yet the play fails to correct that outlook and shows no alternatives. The dramatist's responsibility becomes greater because the play was indeed graphic, electrifying and convincing. But it is not going to promote any "positive changes" if it entrenches one side of the social battle.