A new play by Janice Imhoff, The Eleventh Finger, was recently produced by SENOJ directed by Collette Jones-Chin and performed at the Impeccable Banquet Hall. It was a new addition to the corpus of Guyanese drama by one of the newer playwrights at one of the new alternative theatre venues in Georgetown. While it continued the long entrenched trend of dramatic realism on the Guyanese stage, it also reflected the overwhelming interest in social realism among the new playwrights, and in this case, an uncommon excursion into psychological interrogation.
A quite interesting drama, Testament by Paloma Mohamed in 2008 was actually a stage version of Janice Imhoff’s work – a testimony of cancer survivors. Dr Imhoff later began scripting her own plays, and produced a one-act drama, Ms Edwards in 2011. This now places her among the new playwrights who have gone into full-length production with an experienced director-designer Collette Jones-Chin staging The Eleventh Finger at this unconventional location.
It was an addition to the going tendency of dramatic realism, but not a popular play. A bit more than what one finds on the average, it is a psychological drama with a distinct touch of the Freudian about it. It points a spotlight on ageing, women, sexuality and self-discovery. A 70-year-old widow fights off the cobwebs of many social conventions that govern her life – she grows to realise that these ‘norms’ have actually imposed a stranglehold on her and have retarded her self-development and personal independence for close to 30 years. She discovers that the notions of loyalty and chastity, the accepted norms of widowhood, motherhood, ageing, needed to be revised – especially the stereotypes and insensitive attitudes of the world and its younger generation, who are content to condemn her to a rocking chair of retired uselessness.
The Eleventh Finger shows the protagonist Inez, very credibly played by La Vonne George, deciding to resist the stereotyping imposed upon people of her age by the society. She encounters it from a shop assistant, ironically a woman of 71 (a precise performance by Sheron Cadogan-Taylor) who accepts and practises the stereotypical ‘othering’; from two young children who laugh at her; and from her own adult children by whom she feels betrayed. The only character whose attitude to her is fresh, encouraging and creative is the bookseller, Stanley (Ron Robinson) who, predictably, becomes her lover. All the others point fingers at her, counting her faults and her perceived ‘old lady’ defects. As the play’s title suggests, when they run out of fingers to count on, the eleventh finger points back at them, their own imperfections and guilts.
The play places great emphasis on female sexuality, in particular Inez’s insistence on the right of women of her age to express it and her struggle against the suppression of it. The playwright emphasizes this in what is a part of the Freudian element in the play. She rubbishes both the social pressure of suppression and the middle class notions of chastity, while at the same time showing how it took her some 30 years to attain self-discovery and independence.
One of the supporting characters in the play is Inez’s foil in this regard. Simone Dowding plays the domestic helper, herself a middle-aged widow who allowed no cobwebs to grow as Inez did. She held lengthy (and I mean lengthy) discussions on the topic with the protagonist, making the playwright’s position quite clear. It was a bit classist, but the working class perspective was used to parody and satirise the middle class suppression which Freud warns, causes neurosis. Nevertheless Dowding took to the role with adept accomplishment. There was much humour and a very effective portrayal of the character. One could not help but notice, however, this continued use of the working class ‘menial’ or ‘mechanical’ whose blunt folk wisdom is a source of humour. At least there was dramatic value in the character’s choric function.
The play was staged at The Impeccable Banquet Hall, brought into service as another new unconventional house for theatre. Such venues are a good idea, which help in developing local theatre, but this particular one needs serious adjustments. It has severe limitations including the structure of the auditorium, sight lines, obstacles and inconsistency in the acoustics. Crucial lines were lost due to inaudibility.
Imhoff’s play has very difficult set demands which were handled quite well in this venue by the designer-director. The way the stage was compartmentalised worked effectively to give faithful representations and one could easily believe the locations represented. There was one particularly difficult set change after Scene One. When costumed dancers appeared on stage at the end of the scene, it first appeared that this was a device which would perform multiple functions including effecting the set change, but this was not quite so because they only removed one item, followed by a manual changing of set that took some time. It looked like an opportunity lost.
It was an opportunity for illusionism in a play that strives after realism. Every detail seems set out, and apart from the first set change, it was all very competently managed in which everything had a logical place on the stage. These details included how Inez set about her thorough house-cleaning, clearing away ghosts, cobwebs, stereotypes and restrictive social conventions. These included her relationships with her adult children Gail (Sonia Yarde) and Paul (Mark Kazim) who she is only now trying to wean.
Sonia Yarde created Gail in fine detail. It was a studied character portrayal of immaturity, dependency and selfishness with convincing displays of petulance interpolated with other moods and characteristics. Yarde was able to help the audience understand the character and teamed well with the others. The play particularly came alive in Gail’s exchanges with her mother in which some of the hangovers of the past of 15 years ago were exorcised. La Vonne George had some of her best moments in that sequence which explained the sense of guilt that kept her feeling responsible for Gail for so many years. The quality of the performance was heightened by the fact that it was also a scene in which she decided to put her foot down and assert her independence.
Like the other performers Kazim was believable as the young priest Father Paul who, despite his career in the clergy, still clung to his mother. A bit less was demanded of him as an actor but he assumed the right characteristics and personality for the role. His slightly Freudian protectionism, including his symbolic dream about Stanley coming into her life, was talked about, not dramatised. Inez also repented her role in getting Paul to enter the priesthood – it was his father’s dream and she now feels guilty about pressuring him. But the burden of that rested with George who managed to communicate all of it to the audience in her very complete performance. Robinson was not challenged by his supporting role for which his considerable competence was more than adequate.
Mrs Jones-Chin attempted to introduce symbols and illusionism into the play. These creative elements were mainly in the use of dancers, images and hand-held lights. Their purpose, however, was not clear. At one point there was a suggestion that they represented the ghosts of the past and of the oppressive conventions that shrouded Inez’s life – old spirits hanging around the house. At another time it seemed these were successfully exorcised but the dancers and the lights’ continued reappearance confounded that theory.
Such devices will always provoke thought and infuse artistry into a production, but it also helps if they are functional and if the audience is able to decipher their meaning.
Although the action was generally prolonged beyond what was necessary, it was an achievement staging a play like this as neatly as it was done on that stage. All told The Eleventh Finger performed better than it read. However, there are those who will hasten to say – but isn’t that what theatre is about?