The performance of a play in Georgetown, Pleasing Mrs Jones, by a Linden drama group led by Mike James revealed a number of very interesting developments in the popular theatre that suggest the way Guyana is reflecting current regional trends. Many statements about these trends and directions in the theatre occurred in the space of one weekend, because at the same time The Drama Queens performed Love and Madness at the other end of the city, making a few more significant statements in popular drama.
Pleasing Mrs Jones written and directed by Mike James is a minor comedy with many faults, but what is important about it is its place in the history of drama coming out of Linden. That town played an important role in the development of local drama when the theatre in Guyana began to build a large popular following and to create a working class and grass-roots base. Two main contributors to this started their work in Linden, viz, Harold Bascom and Grace Chapman. Bascom soon moved to Georgetown with The Barrel, a play that may be specifically named in this important new thrust in Guyanese theatre. Chapman produced the trend-setting The Green Bottle.
So Linden was instrumental in that important wave in the early 1980s. Thereafter, however, there was a very marked decline in that theatrical strength coupled with an obvious deterioration in the state of the town’s famous theatre – Lichas Hall. Apart from sporadic occasional visiting productions from Georgetown, very little of note took place there until the National Drama Festival started in 2011. There was promise of some sort in a production of Suppressed Desires directed by Jonathan Adams which won the Theatre Guild One-Act Festival, but generally, the quality of the drama produced there matched the fall of Lichas Hall itself, and it was an aim of the Festival to provoke a revival. This seems to be paying off in a way. Pleasing Mrs Jones is surely more competent than what was seen there in 2012. It has not dramatically reversed the severe decline, but it has shown the rise of a significant type of popular drama which reflects regional trends.
Pleasing Mrs Jones captures a dramatic situation and exploits its humorous possibilities. A selfish and domineering wife demands very much from her harassed husband but is never pleased with his persistent efforts to satisfy her. To wring every bit of laughter out of the situation, Mrs Jones is the typical shrew with an attacking siren voice, ridiculously inconsiderate and unreasonable. It is the normal comedy of this type with a happy resolution at the end in which she learns her lesson and through reversal of fortunes, learns to become a better person, winning the forgiveness of her husband and daughter.
But this play went on for all of four hours. The business of the drama could have been neatly completed in less than 90 minutes, but the script and action were not edited at all. What seems to have been a dramatic complication, clear reference to a past love affair between Mrs Jones and the miserly shopkeeper is introduced, gets a few laughs and is never heard of again. It plays no role in the plot and does not even elicit a few more laughs by satisfying audience curiosity. That is a sign of flawed writing. The production was characterized by slapstick and repetition, unbridled overplaying and stereotypes.
However, quite notable were its good handling of set and lighting and some method in its loose style of playing. The farce was deliberate and played straight to an audience that did not seem to mind the excessive length of the performance. In fact it was this direct courtship of the audience that contributed most to the superfluous run-time. (There were also the repetitions and poor editing.) There was much audience interaction with some actors deliberately engaging the audience in cross dialogue and talk-back.
What is important is, here was a play coming out of a climate in which it is performed in a working class environment to a popular audience. This brand of drama came out of a setting outside of the capital city mainstream. Roots Theatre thrives among audiences like these and they have helped to develop it. This Linden play exhibited the characteristics of popular plays that have established themselves in the Caribbean arising from popular trends in Jamaica.
It was an echo of the Jamaican roots theatre whose popular farces are built on slapstick. They are prolonged in length because of a great deal of ad-lib and spontaneous interaction with the audience. The scripts are structured to accommodate audience talk-back and the actors develop a skill in this. Roots plays have also always been comedies with surprise twists, but happy endings with messages and good triumphing over evil. The trend seems now to have come to Guyana, and again, as in the early 1980s, Linden is in the front-line.
As mentioned earlier, at the same time last weekend, The Drama Queens produced Love and Madness at the Theatre Guild Playhouse. This was a more polished style of theatre, and not in the rustic tradition of the Linden Roots Play. It was a series of skits and short dramatizations on various topics, but with an emphasis on love (more accurately lust), sex, infidelity and marriage. The emphasis was on entertainment, which accounted for the kinds of slants that those topics took.
The Drama Queens is a new outfit led by Lloyda Nicholas, Leslyn Fraser and Tashandra Innis and they co-directed the pieces written by Nicholas, Inniss and Richard Pitman. These were supported by choreography by Fraser and Kijana Lewis and Natasha Yhapp as singer. Love and Madness is their debut production and one which gave quite a good account of itself.
What helped was that they had an extremely competent cast with quite a collection of talent: Sonia Yarde, Kijana Lewis, Mark Kazim, Sean Thompson, Leslyn Fraser, Mark Luke-Edwards, Nirmala Narine, Lloyda Nicholas, Randolph Critchlow and Jamal La Rose, stage managed by Tashandra Inniss with make-up by Alecia DeAbreu.
It, too, was popular theatre, but not of the roots theatre variety. Nevertheless it reflected some of the current Caribbean trends, especially what comes out of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. That trend has long resided in Trinidad with the long series of productions by Raymond Choo Kong, Penelope Spencer and to a lesser extent Richard Raghubarsingh. Love and Madness seemed to echo what was done in Patrick Brown’s Love Games in Jamaica. It was not the same level of achievement as Love Games, which reached greater depth as a full professional work and tried many more strategies, but it is tending to that kind of drama.
Many themes were treated in the several pieces including a short satire on domestic violence and the unfortunate behaviour of too many women who are victims. The treatment here managed to see the humour in the ridiculousness. The emphasis on sex and the more steamy side of relationships was very much in keeping with the widespread popular trends around the Caribbean which respond to an audience demand. There were as many ironies as there were plots of unfaithfulness.
Further to all of the above, is the way both the Drama Queens and the Linden production are in keeping with the growing cultural industries in the Caribbean. Linden seems to be moving in the direction of the Jamaican Roots Play performed in different parts of the country by touring companies. That is big business in Jamaica. Fraser has been involved in popular dance with the potential that the Classique dance company has been expanding. Nicholas and Inniss were successful students of Playwriting in the 2012 Merundoi programme and it is encouraging how they are putting those newly developed skills into enterprise and entrepreneurship. It is a factor in the burning contemporary issue of the building of cultural industries in Guyana.