The very popular Jamaican play Ghett-Out has proved itself to be a work of limited dramatic achievements. But it represents considerable achievement in the context of the forward march of commercial theatre.
Developments in cultural industries in the Caribbean are extremely wide-ranging and really very interesting. The important question was asked in the Carifesta Symposia in 2008, “Are we there yet ?” in “defining and refining” our cultural industries. Meetings have been held with stake-holders in Georgetown, and Caricom has been holding task force discussions on the subject. But one of the most fascinating dimensions of this that has been happening quite outside of all those fora, is the way theatre has developed as an industry, and, in doing so, has returned to old commercial traditions.
This was brought sharply into focus with the recent activities of Stages Productions in Guyana. Stages continued their usual practice of tours to Guyana with some of their current popular plays, but this time the tour quite sharply reflected the developments in this particular industry. The tour was sponsored by Digicel, and brought together this telecommunications powerhouse and a company which has become a tour de force in Caribbean theatre. While Digicel is continuing its battle with GT&T, the local telephone giant, for space in the Guyanese market, Stages is extending its own performance space across the region into other markets.
The play Ghett-Out is the latest box-office attraction in Jamaican popular drama produced by Stages and ‘stars’ the latest most popular box office magnet, Shebada. The plot is, as usual for these kinds of plays, quite simple, but the performance and the play itself display a little bit more complexity and a deeper dramatic interest. It is set in a Kingston tenement yard with the tenants including a woman bemoaning the loss of her husband who has gone to the USA to seek his fortune. She comes into conflict with a younger woman of questionable behaviour and invisible means of income who occupies another room, and another tenant who is frequently in conflict with the police for his unauthorised street vending. The police are represented by two unheroic, corrupt officers, one of whom courts the affections of the shady young lady.
The sudden return of the missing husband surprises most of them, especially the wife who, in her loneliness, is just in the process of entertaining one of the policemen.
While this is one of the innumerable sources of amusement in the play, it introduces a complication in the plot, as it becomes evident that relations between the prodigal husband and the mystery female tenant are more than the simply neighbourly. It all deepens when it turns out that these relations are not as innocent as the mere sexual affair previously suspected; they are partners in crime, and the husband’s trip overseas was a part of the plot.
Enter Shebada, the crowd-drawing comic who appears in the play as “Shebada,” a kind of culture hero. As a character he is a simpleton, but a dramatic ‘fool‘ who often utters wisdom in his great tomfoolery, and is capable of reducing the mightiest characters to ridicule. Significantly, those who fall victim to Shebada’s hilarious deconstruction are often powerful characters who are up to no good; he therefore functions as a folk hero, destroying the powerful villain on behalf of the people. While he manipulates almost everyone, and invokes a good deal of social commentary, he is also at the centre of the deepest complication of plot. This comes in the ‘surprise‘ ending, as the exploits of the shadowy young lady are exposed. Contrary to what many were led to believe, her deeds were not as innocent as prostitution; she has been involved in murder and other criminal offences internationally and the wayward husband is her accomplice.
Shebada is at last revealed at the end as a high-powered detective who has been on their trail. He plays the fool, misleading everyone, including the doting audience, that he is just a “heediat” (Jamaican for “idiot”), while he sets a trap for the criminals, capturing them in dramatic fashion at the end. This is a standard ploy in this brand of popular play. This twist in the tail has been used in many plays in roots theatre, going back several years from the rise of dancehall plays.
Before reaching that dramatic climax, which often saves many of these plays from being total unmitigated slapstick, the performance is stretched out by the farce which sustains their popularity. In the case of Ghett-Out, the farcical slapstick dominates, even though it contains a few elements of social satire. The corrupt, unheroic policemen, for example, are there as commentary upon the worst elements of a tainted police force. But at the same time they are sources in the play for most of the comicry as they cross swords with Shebada. And there are other topical references which draw laughter but also touch some social or political issues.
This play is almost entirely farce, however, with the slapstick accounting for almost all of its content until the concluding twist. This is deliberate to give Shebada full rein, because that is one of the play’s most popular successes. In this regard it is not as strong as some of those popular dramas written by Paul O Beale, like Ova Me Dead Body. The horsing around on stage stretches the play to almost twice as long as it needed to be to communicate its simple plot, but that is characteristic of the brand of audience-driven commercial theatre produced by Stages.
Stages is the most successful professional theatre company in Jamaica. They have turned themselves into a touring company producing popular plays, including roots theatre which is in great demand and has a very large popular audience. They take their plays to several different locations around Jamaica, performing on stages set up in a variety of non-conventional theatre spaces in convenient buildings. They also have a busy schedule of overseas tours. They have effective commercial viability, having developed an industry that employs actors, managers and technicians, all linked to perfecting the art of a particular brand of roots theatre.
The fact that, in their most recent tour of Guyana, they did not perform in established theatres, but in areas with outdoor accommodation and makeshift stages, was no accident. In Jamaica they are accustomed to attracting several thousands in the various locations, and indeed, in Georgetown their audience at the National Park was twice as large as the Cultural Centre’s capacity 2,000. Never before has theatre in the Caribbean had such large audiences.
These developments, however, were quite like a return to old traditions that had faded away. Local popular theatre in the Caribbean began to develop its own tradition around the early middle twentieth century when vaudeville and popular theatre performances took place in cinema houses and outdoor type venues like Eldeweiss Park in Kingston. Examples of these included Marcus Garvey, Ranny Williams, Ernest Cupidon and Vere Johns in Jamaica, Bill Rogers, Jack Mello and Sam Chase of British Guiana, The Roaring Lion and popular playwrights in Trinidad. When these faded away, the type of tradition was revived by Ed ‘Bim’ Lewis in Jamaica in the 1970s. He was then followed by the likes of Oliver Samuels, much aided by the Jamaica Pantomime, and now with a few comic actors in the tradition, including Shebada.
This theatre contains satire, and a very close and direct engagement with the audience. Scripts are very often extremely thin, containing little more than a sketch of the plot with most of the dialogue developed in rehearsal and by the actors. The performers have become skilled in ad lib, and in talking back to a lively audience. The length of the play is often undetermined and goes well beyond the apparent brevity of the script. That is because it is determined by the talk back and bantering with the audience. Audience reactions will influence what the actors do and say within the loose control of the script and plot. Even in cases where there is a fully developed playscript the actors will take on a willing, ready audience, and many plays now have that built in and written in to the script.
Contemporary drama, particularly in Jamaica, is now highly influenced by these old traditions which have returned to the stage. More than ever, they now drive popular plays which are audience –driven because they are commercial and depend on gate receipts. But this is also because of the fact that the Caribbean stage has never been far away from regional traditions, regardless of how it developed in many literary and western ways between the 1950s and 1980s. Although the strength and influence of the popular audience was prominent from the seventies, the old traditions began to encroach only gradually. However, in the twenty-first century, one can say they have become very significant.
The performance of an otherwise slight farce, Ghett-Out, struck a reminder of what has been developing on the contemporary popular stage.