83 Million Gees can be declared a hit

Guyanese playwright Ronald Hollingsworth has over the years earned a place for himself on the contemporary Guyanese stage.  He started his career as a teacher by profession, began to learn his craft as an amateur at the Theatre Guild and later at the University of Guyana where he studied.  Hollingsworth, who now lives in Texas, developed into one of the leading dramatists in Guyanese popular theatre, and has produced a corpus of popular plays, some of which are all-time favourites in great demand and often brought back to full houses.

However, Hollingsworth’s fledgling interests were not in the popular stage, and after his series of box office successes in laughter, topical issues and mirror plays well exploited for their immediate popular appeal, he did return to attempts at the production of serious theatre.  His latest production in Guyana, 83 Million Gees is one of these efforts.

The cast of 83 Million Gees in rehearsal (SN file photo)

Hollingsworth started life at the Theatre Guild as an actor, and his most memorable role was the award-winning part he played in a production of Sweet Talk, one of the most outstanding works of leading Guyanese dramatist Michael Abbensetts.  It is a drama about Trinidadian immigrants in London, where Abbebsetts himself has lived for many decades in Shepherd’s Bush, a very entertaining play, but with tragic undercurrents.

Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Hollingsworth who contributed to wider public exposure of one of Guyana’s important minor playwrights, Bertram Charles.  Charles would have been writing in the nineteen sixties into the seventies and seems to have had some influence upon both Hollingsworth and Harold Bascom. He is known among Guyanese playwrights for his distinctive interest in the mysteries of human existence.  His mostly one-act plays are deeply existentialist with a tragic sense, and universal rather than identifiably local in setting.

After directing a number of productions of Bertram Charles at the Guild, Hollingsworth’s first venture into popular commercial theatre was in partnership with Ken Danns who was himself going into theatre for the first time with Awe Society.  As a sociologist, Danns discovered the potential for comic theatre in several local social phenomena and Hollingsworth worked with him in the very popular series.  But they parted company and Hollingsworth tried his version titled Is We Society, which did not last long and was involved in disputes with Danns over copyright issues.  From there, however, the younger playwright moved into the production of his own series of popular dramas.

Even after his move to the USA Hollingsworth was consistently in touch with the local stage since some of his plays are among the most popular and sought after and have been reproduced many times.  Among these are old plays Till Ah Find A Place and Watch De Ride, his biggest box office hits.  New works also emerged as the playwright, in the spirit of carpe diem, continued to pounce on issues of immediate popular currency like the current cell phone epidemic in his latest play Text Me.

83 Million Gees is not a new play.  Originally written and produced in 1997 it was brought back for the first time in late June 2012 directed by Hollingsworth and Sheron Cadogan Taylor.  This production can be immediately declared a hit; not because it made any public noise, but because of the quality of its performance and its handling of topical social issues.  It was very entertaining and often hilarious, but it is Hollingsworth’s most serious drama to date and probably his best.

Some of its most successful features may be found in its allegorical intentions.  The plot surrounds a secret plan by three high-ranking officials of a government bank (the central bank? It is not clear), Bashir Bacchus (Mahadeo Shivraj), Jerry De Freitas (Derek Gomes) and Joy Clarke (Lloyda Nicholas) to steal $83 million dollars from the institution. While it was a carefully worked out plan involving the skilful manipulation of computer records, they were careless because the plan ended up not as secret as they thought.  So porous was their security that many others found out about it.  Bacchus’ aged mother Devi (Shameeza Husain), his two sons Sheik (Chris Gopaul) and Feroze (Mark Kazim) as well as his office attendant Colin Abraham (Michael Ignatius) all, in various ways, discovered the plot.

This led to a series of consequences after the money was safely in their hands, but the main focus of the drama was on the prolonged fight among the four main protagonists over the division of the loot.  The members of Bacchus’ family did not directly threaten him and in fact, his mother became his most faithful defender.  There were several chain reactions.  Sheik and Feroze in turn stole a portion of the stolen money to enter the cocaine trade.  While they made further millions and returned dividends to their father, their extravagant activities did put him in danger of exposure.

However, the play’s main interest is in the persistent quarrels among Bacchus, De Freitas, Clarke and Abraham and their pathological lack of trust in each other.  Of supreme importance to the play is the fact that they represented Guyana’s four most prominent racial groups: Indian, African, Portuguese and Amerindian.  It is one of the most explicit and outspoken plays about the country’s unending racial conflicts (preceded by Harold Bascom’s Two Wrongs) and this comes over without censorship or inhibition in the way the characters accuse and mistrust each other.  Derogatory racial stereotypes are flung about and neatly built into the plot.

It becomes very obvious that this is allegorical.  The fight over $83 million dollars reflects the battle of the races over the 83 million square miles of Guyanese territory, with an emphasis on each individual (or race) carting off his personal cut of the wealth with no thought of sharing or working together.

One of the weakest elements in the play is its preachiness, with this point being made repeatedly by De Freitas who often has to jump between Bacchus and Clarke, the main racial antagonists, who have many violent confrontations. The work vividly dramatizes many of the ills of Guyanese society including corruption, financial fraud, crime, racism and the fact that so many feel that the country owes them a share of its wealth and the only way to get it is through illicit practice.

This production by Hollingsworth and Cadogan Taylor was very tightly, precisely and expertly directed.  The first thing that captured attention was the set done by Collette Jones Chin, which was as eye-catching and symbolic as it was functional; then followed the excellence of the acting with convincing characters as the action moved at an effective, driving pace.

Mahadeo Shivraj has already established himself as being among the very best currently practising on the Guyanese stage and he showed it in this performance.  His knowledge and command of the stage made him go through his range of emotions with ease, comfort and clarity.

Opposite him Lloyda Nicholas (sometimes printed as Lloyda Garrett) was quite a revelation.  It was her best and most substantial major role seen to date.  This performance revealed that she is capable of doing justice to a lead role, which she attacked in this play with energy and precision.

The case of Derek Gomes is somewhat similar, as he does not often do this much or play major roles of this type.  But he was believable and kept pace with the fast-moving pace and intensity that the drama demanded.

There was, however, no surprise at seeing Michael Ignatius who has come a long way in local theatre.  His early roles tended to type-cast him as a minor comic to the point where he was hardly taken seriously.  But he has positively broken out of that and showed once again in this production that he is capable of important performances.

Shameeza Husain is another who has emerged from a series of minor roles with a flair for the comic.  She has now taken on important major performances like this one.  She did it very well, skilfully representing the old Indian matriarch.  It is not clear why she used a stereotyped physical posture.

Of the two Bacchus boys Chris Gopaul was not totally convincing as he needed to be able to do a bit more than play-acting. While the performance was sufficiently effective to represent his character, it was not done with command.  Mark Kazim, on the other hand, was solid.  He had much less to do but performed with confidence and there was no question of believability.

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