But Rhone has also developed a reputation for humour in Guyana mainly because of the impact of his employment of laughter in Smile Orange, which has been revived many times, and Two Can Play. But he is also celebrated for his best work, Old Story Time, which has been in demand with repeated reproductions of it over many years.
Ron Robinson has been in all of them, variously as actor and as director. He has directed Smile Orange and played the legendary roles of Jim in Two Can Play and Pa Ben (Old Story Time), and in the most recent revival of Rhone theatre in Guyana he was both director and lead actor. This Theatre Guild production was the richer for that experience since its great strengths were Robinson’s direction as well as the performance of two strong leads in Robinson’s revisit of the guileful Pa Ben and Simeon Dowding as the wilful Miss Aggie.
The production obviously benefited from an understanding of the meaning of the play and of Pa Ben’s role in it. It made statements about race, colonial colour and class prejudice, exploitation against the undeveloped condition of the rural village and its neglected people. Simultaneously, competent character studies communicated afflicted individuals who are both victims and makers of their attitudes and social conditioning. Robinson was comfortable with Pa Ben’s multiple roles as roguish storyteller, yet as the voice of reason and moral conscience of the play. He convinced and delighted as both narrator of events and participant in the plot, which included the way he took unobtrusive command of the play. His was a very effective presentation, a comprehensive and intelligent interpretation which called upon his depth of experience and versatility as an actor.
Opposite him Dowding complemented effectively. Previous to this, she had given an indication that she was capable of serious interpretation of dramatic character role play when she turned out what seemed her most accomplished performance up to that point – her part in Paloma Mohamed’s Testimony. She was an impersonation of pestilence, the demonic influence reminiscent of the mediaeval Morality Play, and gave it the subtlety and sensitivity it demanded. Dowding surpassed that as Miss Aggie. She demonstrated her capability of character study in a major lead role with a convincing portrayal of the amazing country woman, strong Caribbean single mother, yet strong-willed and obsessed with whiteness.
The two combined as they should, but dominated the play. They carried it, and did so to the point where it was lively and moving, but fell off in pace and intensity when they were not on stage. At times, some of the other actors slowed it down. But the production as a whole was put together in a way that was workable, but not neat. There was at least one innovative use of set with space demarcated for the interior of Miss Aggie’s house not seen in other set designs, but it is a play with the influences of post-modernism, which will always challenge any attempts at realistic sets. Within this, the most important theatrical technique is the storytelling tradition.
It counts for humour, since this Caribbean story time tradition is an entertainment event. While Robinson was up to it, there was no pronounced indulgence in comicry. More than comic entertainment were the narrative and instructive choric roles of Pa Ben that Robinson managed engagingly. He was able to take on the audience while keeping control of mood changes, choric instruction and emotional depth. The requirements of the role were fulfilled in a way that made sense to the audience. The story teller narrated the events of an old story to an audience gathered together for the occasion, but there were two audiences and a mix of roles. He addressed the real audience who went to the Guild Playhouse to see the play, but also the actors on stage who gathered in the village to hear Pa Ben as a part of the play. At one time they were listening to Pa Ben and interacting with him, but then, in addition to being audience, they played the parts of the characters in the story.
That is the inclusive participatory structure of the tradition. As used in the play it was entertaining while it allowed the narrator to weave in and out of the action, becoming the leading character in the drama, then stepping out occasionally to speak directly to the audience and make comments about what was taking place. One part of this technique that worked very effectively was the narrator’s pretence that he did not know certain parts of the story, as if he, too, was a part of the audience waiting to find out what really happened. This served well for suspense, but it also allowed the narrator to comment on the social situations of race and class prejudice, exploitation and knavery unobtrusively.
The two main antagonists in the drama of these vices were Miss Aggie’s son Len played by Henry Rodney and George, the villain of the piece played by Derek Gomes. Despite the slowness of their interactive sequences they clearly communicated George’s knavery in counterpoint to Len’s controlled contempt and hidden anger as he manipulated his trap to catch a mongoose. Gomes understood his roles in his different approaches to Miss Aggie and to her daughter-in-law Lois (Timolyn Barclay/Kanini Fyffe).
Both Barclay and Fyffe who alternated as Lois were believable with little difference in their interpretations. Mainly they differed in the way they related to George, one seeming to play more on his sympathy. Really, Lois’ main reaction should be governed by fright at the possibility of exposure. They both contributed to the drop in pace, but showed a better understanding of their interactions with Len, the only thing wanting there being more sharpness and precision.
Another sequence that worked well was the almost idyllic and pastoral interlude between Len as a boy (Johan David) and Pearl, whose name is ironic symbolism (Tashandra Innis alternating with Abigail Brower). It showed the untainted natural youthful existence in a country setting that was the play’s only glimpse of uncorrupted, uninhibited bliss. That, of course, did not last as that brief idyllic innocence was soon invaded by Miss Aggie’s self contempt and the other social and personal ills that were to follow. In contrast, a parallel scene involving a similar get-together between George and Miss Margaret (Clemencio Godette) as teenagers was characterized by George’s lustful gropings and Margaret’s racist contempt.
One of the most interesting features of Old Story Time is the protagonists’ attitudes to obeah, which is the play’s most important dramatic metaphor. Rhone has been accused of playing to the comic gallery with farcical slapstick in a sequence in which Len attempts to perform obeah rituals. The scene is hilarious when well played. Rodney is at home with comic by-play, but what happened in his portrayal here was that he seemed too proficient in his knowledge of the routines of such rituals. Really, Rhone is not guilty of gratuitous pseudo-obeah comicry for laughs. The scene is farcical because first of all, Len is a novice completely out of his depths with obeah, and is simply playing the fool. Secondly, the obeah woman he consulted was a fraud who, herself, knew nothing of obeah. Here, Rodney was too competently at home.
Miss Aggie’s attitude to obeah is important to the plot. Dowding was on top of this in all areas except the matter of possession. She very sharply demonstrated her mistrust of her fellow villagers and her own self-contemptuous preoccupation in her attitude to her neighbours and her always hasty conclusion that she was the victim of obeah. There were times when one expected more exhibitions of possession as obeah with Miss Aggie (as with many practitioners) is an experience of spiritual possession.
In the play as a whole, obeah as spirit possession brought the drama to a satisfactory conclusion. All characters, Dowding, Robinson, Rodney, Barclay and Fyffe managed to show how the personal ills with which they were afflicted were driven out at the end by forgiveness, love and more wholesome and harmonious bonding of humanity.
Old Story Time is a CXC prescribed text. The Theatre Guild has shown no inclination to follow the example of Godfrey Naughton who performed another “CXC play,” August Wilson’s Fences specifically for the benefit of school audiences. But they might want to consider it.