I had the good fortune to see two productions in two consecutive nights both with different fare but the end result speaks volumes about the state of theatre in Barbados.
Laff-it-Off-We Like It So, ended its three month run at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre to a large cross section of nationals while Once on This Island, the musical production put on by Operation Triple Threat finished with an almost full Frank Collymore Hall. I liked both productions if only because they make clear that there are markets for both types of work; that Barbadians are willing and able to support theatre for children and theatre for adults; that there is the personnel both on and offstage to make these productions please the patrons and all three theatre institutions-the secondary schools’ CSEC Theatre Arts programme, BCC with its Theatre Arts Associate degree and EBCCI with its Fine Arts thrust are capturing those intent on making a career in show business.
The lessons for artists therefore are: we must push for knowledgeable staff in the theatre colleges and the secondary school programmes; we must continue to stick to our resolve; get your qualifications and get your feet wet in all types of theatre work; find directors who will carry you to the next level; if you are in the technical theatre field get apprenticed; learn as much as you can. The longevity of theatre as a craft will only happen when people remain committed, find the formula for success and work collaboratively to achieve the desired end result. For theatre to become a driver of the economy there must be incentives from philanthropic foundations and from government. We already have multiple, multi-talented crafts people. There must be incentives for doing Barbadian work.
Another important aspect is whether any of these productions can become the template for theatre for the future, a theatre that can stand the test of time in foreign destinations. Can either of these productions travel to the Caribbean diaspora and touch a chord with the audiences longing for a piece of home? Can the imported musical compete with the North American versions? Can it be viewed as expressing a Barbadian identity?Can either of these productions represent us as the National productions for the upcoming CARIFESTA XIII?These are questions that can be answered by the theatre going public and they are by no means meant to pit one production against the other. Both have their place in my opinion.
Both show the quality of our theatre. Both demonstrate that there is room for theatre for youth and theatre for adults and together they show clearly they have found a formula for success.
So, the first production showed the well-rehearsed nature of the musical Once on This Island, done previously by Dawn-Lisa Callendar Smith when she had her Pippin Company, but which can now be credited to the director Janelle Headley and her music coach Maachelle Farley. Both know what they are doing when it comes to mounting a musical. Headley has found her niche and has attracted the interest of young people and their parents since the inception of Operation Triple Threat. Furthermore, her company, through its involvement with theatre arts schools abroad, offers opportunities to pursue further education in the arts, a great incentive for the keen participant. This is, I suspect her main motive for pursuing the foreign material. Her student performers will have much to show for any audition abroad.
Once on This island, a Broadway hit and very popular staple in the drama programmes of American high schools, is set in a French Caribbean island and is a story within a story. A little girl is lost during a storm and to assuage her fears and loneliness she is told the story of Ti Moune by an old man and woman of the village who adopt her. Ti Moune, played very sweetly by Shade Jacques, ventures to seek love in the world which denied her healing powers. Her sacrifice of self and her eventual loss of the one she loved through his capitulation to his social class, presents the reality that poor black girls face in a world based on race and class.
Hers is a tragedy associated with the history of colonialism and the writers-Lyn Ahrens-book and lyrics- and Stephen Flaherty-music, make clear that she will never win against these odds. We have no doubt that the haughty people of the town represent the Creole mixed race groups who exploit the situation for their gain. One cannot help but feel that this is Haiti with its gradations of colour and its frustrations after its seminal revolution that changed the plantation culture and the world. In fact this is suggested in background notes about the play. But the writers offer no overthrow of the old order of things. Ti Moune is turned into a tree for all her heart ache and life continues with its disparities of race and class. Hers is the story told over and over to warn young girls of the futility of crossing those barriers. This is where I take issue with the story line and OTTs preference for a story that does not overturn the old order of things. And even though I liked the energy of the performers, the elements that make it pop, I am disappointed yet again with the choice of work that looks at our struggles through the lens of others. The subliminal message of this play needs to be exposed if only because it is our world that is the subject of the play. Also where opportunities arose for the instruction of the audience through costuming for the vodun deities- Erzulie and Agwe, the spirit figures who guide or antagonize Ti Moune, the director made conservative choices that miss deepening the meaning of this play.
Nonetheless, the set, a series of levels made to look like hastily put together poor people’s dwellings made of pallet wood, serves as the backdrop for this fantasy. This was good execution by Barbadian company Fieldtech with Headley’s design. It was not overpowering but a reminder of the circumstances of the characters. However, it is the acting, singing, dancing, lighting and visual effects that make this work the spectacle we enjoy in the theatre. We have the Caribbean’s bright colours appropriate for the villagers, family members and the haughty Creole people from the other side of the town. The lighting enhances the set and works well for the creation of the hurricane that begins the play, the changes in mood of the principals especially when they meet adversity and the happy moments when all seems well. Exceptional are the scenes depicting wind and rain, the market scenes, Ti Moune’s journey to the city, the tastefully executed love scenes, and the moments where Ti Moune shows her African dances. The sparing use of props and the reliance on the actors’ bodies, their gestures and facial expressions make the whole musical appealing.
In addition to Jacques, the other standouts in the musical were Philip Holder as Ti Moune’s love interest, Daniel Beauxhomme, Toni Mc Intosh as Asaka, Jon-Mykul Bowen as Tonton Julian, Mary Walker as Mama Euralie and Ammunikee Gomez as Papa Ge. On the whole, the ensemble of triple threat performers brought a great deal of satisfaction for the appreciative audience. Credit must also go to Rene Blackman for his choreography for the play.
On a scale of 1-10-1 being lowest/10 being the highest- I give it 8 for its youthful energy, its acting, singing, dancing and visual effects.
In contrast, Laff-it-Off’s We Like It So is a revue with acting, singing, movement and satirical sketches that capture the topical issues of the day, born and artistically bred in a Barbadian consciousness. This is the difference between the two productions. Whereas OTT relies heavily on foreign material, for over three decades a local company catering to adult Barbadians has managed to attract old and new audiences expressing itself about Barbadian themes. Potholes and their inherent dangers to the populace and the politicians who speak about them was one thread that ran throughout. The not-so-bright local who cannot make sense of her life and its meaning was another issue. And of course the topical events like the shortage of water, the charade of the Health and Tourism ministers ‘swimming’ on the south coast during the sewerage outflow were some that caught the audience’s attention.
The set is simple and effective- a series of modules which become beds, chairs or anything else set against the painted backdrop of the Nook and Cranny Bar which serves as Willo’s abode, the place where neighbours come for advice and discussion and for enactments of the topical events. The lighting assists the revue overall -spots where needed, some specials in different colours to create mood or shifts in time, general lighting and special effects to create dramatic moments. The costuming too was effective for the varying scenes capturing well the personalities and the situations.
Laff-it-Off is in its 32nd dispensation-having started with a completely different cast in 1985 and to date it is the well-known staple on the Barbadian theatre calendar. None of the other companies can rival its longevity, all others born around the same time having declined or ‘passed away.’ The material is a mix of scripted pieces by several local writers as well as improvised pieces by the cast. The sketches are humorous and biting all at the same time. They poke fun especially at the pompous politicians and not even the political head honchos are spared. The cast creates skilful parody of these through a remake of their famous gaffes, their intonation and speech, and their dress. Laff-it-Off is for adult audiences expressly and judging by the faces of the audiences and their vocal responses, there is something about this work that can be understood and appreciated by all classes of Barbadians who yearly trek to the venue to see the performers and laugh until their sides ache.
The cast of Peta Alleyne, Toni-Ann Johnson, Ishiaka McNeil, Janine White and Angelo Lascelles, all triple threat performers and a well-knit ensemble, keep us keen on the happenings on stage and this year was no exception.
Laff-it-Off is always able to avoid a conventional approach by introducing new elements-this year a Trump look-alike complete with hair and voice played by Lascelles. Then they are the tributes to local singers – this year RPB – a selection of top tunes arranged dramatically by Lowrey Worrell, musical director, and sung with great feeling, and the video clips – a series depicting the wholly ‘foolish’ husband played convincingly by Combermere Dramatic Society alumnus Jeffrey Brathwaite. The cast is clever, knowledgeable about their craft, have good rapport and together create the moments that please us. Congratulations are also in order for director Cecily Spencer-Cross, producer Ian Estwick and the tried and tested Stage Manager Shakera Williams, her crew and front-of-house staff.
Any flaws in this production would be the occasional glitch in sound, and the tenuous connections between a few of the sketches, but on a scale of 1-10, I give it 9 for its talented cast, its comedic timing, its set, lighting and costuming and its commitment to the use of local material.