One of the leading plays in the 2015 National Drama Festival (NDF) was the new comedy Crack Jokes written and directed by a national Stand-Up Comedy Queen Odessa Primus. Out of several nominations it won four awards in the NDF, foremost among them being the second best full-length play in the open category. It was not surprising that it was soon to be independently produced on the open market where it was predicted to be a hit. This expectation was not so much because of its NDF success but because it is the type of play that would appeal to and thrill a popular audience. Over all of that, though, it made a number of statements as drama.
Crack Jokes was produced at the National Cultural Centre by Gem Madhoo-Nascimento for GEMS Theatre Company in collaboration with Primus’ Transformation Theatre. Billed as “the hilarious comedy of the year” it shone with stars including the 2015 NDF award winning Best Actor Kwasi Edmondson in the lead role as George and opposite him, the NDF 2015 Best Actress and previous multiple award winner Nuriyyih Gerrard as his daughter Desirée.
They were supported by a virtual galaxy who, together, earned the play the award of Best Performing Cast in the NDF. That prize spoke to the way the cast not only performed well, but performed as a team and a unified group. Indeed, the team-work was excellent as they cohesively delivered the style of farce that the play demanded. They all seemed to understand a type of playing that is taken for granted because it can lend itself to free-for-alls and unbridled laughter. Moreover, most members of the cast appeared to be guilty of excesses and over-acting at times.
However, to their collective credit, they handled farce appropriately. The borders are blurred between low farce and over-acting because to play low farce or slap-stick one has to exaggerate and play to the audience. This supporting cast included leading local actor Michael Ignatius, himself a stand-up comedy star recently rocketed to fame, who was just a bit subdued in this latest of his many ‘gay’ roles. He was rather controlled, not carried away, and is sufficiently confident not to worry about falling as a victim of constant type-casting in these roles.
Prominent actresses Nathaya Whaul and Melika Edmonds as George’s daughters revelled in the roles playing as a team with pin-point timing so important to comic performance. Much low farce was expected of them and they played to suit, delivering up the high-spirited ghetto girls in believable fashion. Abigail Brower, following a string of successes as a foremost actress, joined them in a minor role in which she sparked as the character type that she was expected to deliver.
At times different things were expected of supports Nelan Benjamin and Johann David who could play fairly straight without the necessity for slap-stick. As two street-corner hustlers they were very convincing and did not depart from the general pattern of effective interaction as a team. David had to play farce in doubling as the policeman, which he did with less success. Mark Luke Edwards also doubled with roles in which he had to be quite different and achieved that difference without fault. Both roles were distinct types and he prevailed as the Nigerian with the images, body language and attitudes designed to generate humour and delight the audience. In that role he, too, demonstrated the general understanding of farce.
The leads blended in unobtrusively with the rest and achieved laudable character creation. Edmondson was credible in a straight-backed performance including very good acting off-camera, a feat that usually calls for some discipline. He sustained George’s character throughout employing workable techniques of voice, action and stage presence. Despite its obvious farcical characteristics, Gerrard’s role was not easy. Among the major demanding tests were the consistent play of malapropism, phony accent and having to be always correctly delivering incorrect grammar. It was a studied performance that stood out and showed that she could play humour. Almost on the other end of the spectrum, fewer demands were made upon Kescia Branche as the family scholar and she delivered appropriately.
Primus’ was a play written for laughter and designed as a comedy. Its great strengths lay in the unending series of funny one-liners. Otherwise it stuck to the formula of characters with comic traits, character types and stereotypes all pitched for relentless laughter. That promise was realised for the grateful audience; yet the play wanted to be social commentary as well as comedy.
It placed old George’s family in a yard setting of typical deprivation, a nagging concern for income and survival which not only pits them against their neighbours but against a hostile society and against themselves. They were always on the sharp edge of competitiveness although they curiously remained a family to the end, despite a few imperfections in that area. For commentary, there were a few social bullet-points including the constant hustle, the rush for foreign ‘prags,’ the drugs running, prostitution and the drive for survival. For humour, there was the usual typical gay.
It worked satisfactorily to have the street corner hustlers often in a role as chorus to the main plot. But it was always good support to have them as parallel reflections on the street of what was taking place in the flawed house of old George and as a representative of the harsh society.
At the core of the main plot was the scheme devised and worked by George to get rich. This apparently was based on an under-hand plot to get the bounty – the reward money offered by the police for information leading to the capture of the cocaine trader. That was a part of the play that was not entirely clear. George congratulates himself towards the end on the way he played his scheme and pulled it off perfectly. But the play did not work hard enough on the plot, or on letting the audience into details of how that ‘perfect’ scheme worked. It was not entirely clear – or this was not revealed to the audience.
The old lady Clarissa (Melinda Harris) is roped in as a mule and is caught. Desirée’s husband, the Nigerian, who is the real villain of the piece, escapes and Desirée is made to take the rap. George indeed collects the reward money but details are muddled rather than smooth. One admits to probably missing something crucial there, unless George’s scheme was knowingly at the expense of his good friend the hapless old lady and his own daughter.
Here, the play worked tremendously as farce but leaves a question as comedy. A comedy ends happily, has a satisfactory ending and resolution in which the protagonists triumph and the villain meets his just deserts, or is reformed. It was good that George’s family (and friends) ends up with $5 million that will hopefully pull them out of poverty and allow the sole scholar in the family to go to university. But the loose ends are not sufficiently tidy.
There is a good touch even at that ending when George suffers from visitation of greed and selfishness and plans to run off with the money all by himself leaving his family still in poverty. The closing sequence in which he has touches of conscience and guilt that cause him to change his mind and decide to return home to share it is very well pulled off with dramatic technique. So was the bit of imagery which was the source of laughter but also a recurring symbol of poverty – the ubiquitous pumpkin for dinner. The title itself with its irony and pun on the word ‘crack,’ worked.
An inconspicuous but very telling remark is made, significantly, by the family scholar Crystal. She says to her mother “but you allow Aunty Desirée to go to jail and that is not right (or good) – [the quote is not verbatim].” The lingering sense of a resolution that is not quite satisfactory still hangs over George, and the play, at the end. But there was no doubt that Crack Jokes thoroughly entertained an audience whose interest was in loud humour and who were rewarded with a resoundingly hilarious piece.