gall and gumption

Monday, May 28, 2007


It’s really hard to say anything helpful about a play written by your own mother so I won’t even try. I did have moments when I felt like one of the two characters was channeling her voice and that was strange. See? Right there is why I have nothing intelligent to say about it. I haven't put the title up, you can write me if you want it, but last night was the last night, though they're trying to set up a few more performances.

It was in a nightclub, basically, which the Jamaican owner gave over to the production and its small audience of mostly West Indians, whose reaction to drama probably keeps a lot of their acting compatriots in business and jazzed up. They are such a fun audience to play to. They talk back, they get into it as if the story is a real scandal occurring right before their eyes. They have complicated feelings about their own life experience (so do we all, I know) but one of the ways they get access to their own experience is through drama, because they identify so keenly with any story acted on a stage. They react as if they are on the stage with the characters, or as if they are overhearing an actual conversation in which they have a personal interest. Because they feel it all intensely, it’s really magical for them, they are not jaded about it. You hear people muttering all the familiar exclamations you hear in conversation – disbelief, scorn, derision, indignation, and this certain laugh they do with a long tail at the end, when truth has been revealed at the cost of someone’s pretensions. They do it with plays, they do it listening to the radio (our last domestic helper in Jamaica, a sweet old lady named Beatrice, used to sit upstairs and listen to her evening soap opera – a local production about the endless trials and tribulations of a young woman named “Dulcimina” – while we were having dinner, and we’d hear her up there, talking back to the radio, “Yes, tell him! De wicked brute,” “But a whey you a say! No! You tellin’ lie! Lick ‘im again!” etc.). But the best thing is this: West Indians love their arts and will happily pay to go see them and enjoy them. One reason the house is so small tonight is that there’s an Oliver Samuels play on in the Bronx, and Oliver, as every Caribbean person calls him, is a huge draw.

That’s why theater thrives in Jamaica, simply. Funny stuff happens as a result: one of the two characters is a woman prison guard, very religious, always quoting the Bible and singing hymns. During the London run, this character was played by a popular Jamaican actress who had had a previous role as a “Boops” girl. To make it clear that she was a Boops girl her nickname was Boops. So there’s this one moment in the play when she’s singing a hymn to herself in a low voice. My mother said that out of the audience a stage whisper was heard: “But wait. Ah no Boops dat?” Trans: Isn’t that Boops?

This audience all sang along, to a pretty little song that the two characters sing. It’s not in the script for them to sing, but they sing because they all know the song, though they probably haven’t heard it for decades. It’s a children’s song that had ceased to be taught in schools before I was born, a little bit of late Victoriana that lingered on. “That’s an old song,” I heard one woman say to herself, when the song was over, and there was a sort of contented murmur of pleasant recollection. If they hadn’t come out they might never have thought of that old song again, but they did, all the words came back. That just seems so nice.


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