The Guyanese play For Better For Worse by Leon Saul returned after a very long time to performance at the National Cultural Centre two weeks ago. It was produced and directed on this occasion by Max Massiah with what was generally a new cast.
This adventure thriller is not without historical importance to the Guyanese stage. For Better For Worse has its origins in a significant era in the rise of local drama at the beginning of the 1980s. It started life as a radio soap opera at a time when local radio drama serials had become popular, following in the footsteps of Francis Farrier’s The Tides of Susanburg. There had also been a few other radios dramas of one-act length and the still legendary reading by James Sidney of Mittelholzer’s suspenseful novel My Bones and My Flute.
Moreover, Leon Saul who was then an actor at the Theatre Guild became part of a movement that shifted from the Guild to build the professional theatre at the Cultural Centre. Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo led that charge with The Link Show and a number of others produced plays to be a part of this significant development. These included Harold Bascom and Grace Chapman from Linden, as well as Ian Valz.
For Better For Worse dates back to that time. From a radio serial it was converted into a stage play and has been revisited a number of times over the years with some revisions to the original script but remained the same play. It is not dated, since its main plot involves the cocaine trade that was already entrenched but which, if anything, became an even bigger player in Guyanese society. A few minor adjustments in this new production by Massiah turned the local detective into an operative of CANU and the visiting sleuths into members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who over those same years have been more than once deeply involved in drug cases involving Guyanese barons.
Massiah is well known on the Guyanese stage as an actor and saxophonist, then as a producer on television with the Maximum Sports Combat and Strength Show. He returned to the stage this time as producer and director of a play from the foundations of the development of contemporary Guyanese commercial drama. He “celebrates 35 years” of this play in Guyana’s Golden Jubilee.
His direction remained faithful to the play as it is, save for the few necessary lines mentioned above to bring it up to date. The plot surrounds a local Detective Inspector Liverpool Fennimore (Mark Luke-Edwards) who is an undercover agent on the trail of a notorious drug lord called Sugar Baby Constantino (Mark Kazim). The espionage is led by RCMP undercover agents Supt Bobby Dunn (Kanini Fyffe) and Sgt Sonita Naidoo (LeTisha Da Silva). But unknown to Fennimore, the master dealer had gained control of his sister Audrey (Timolyn Barclay) and his new girlfriend Violet (Sonia Yarde). The Fennimore family was busy executing a wedding between Sugar Baby and Audrey.
The play is at best a thriller as Massiah kept the audience entertained with some of the frills of the underworld. These included the sequences in which the “Dopa Gang” was on show. Melinda Primo-Solomon, Nathaya Whaul and Kimberly Fernandes who played these exotic nightclub girls and gangland assistants, displayed the sexy steaminess when necessary, the bitchiness when the occasion called upon them to sharpen their claws, all delivering the thrills demanded. The effectiveness of the actresses notwithstanding, however, Leon Saul’s cocaine underworld hardly got deeper than that. The other character provided to conjure up Constantino’s deadly empire was his handyman and executioner Grislee. Again, the snarling, growling sidekick whose favourite hobby is murder was very effectively played by NDF 2015 Best Actor Akeem Joseph. Joseph was fully immersed in the character, employing speech, idiosyncrasies and body language to be consistent and convincing. It was a singularly impressive performance.
However, Saul managed in the play to create a den in the depths of crime that amused rather than frightened the audience. There was never a feeling that this bunch was dangerous or any threat to national, let alone international security. Kazim understood his role as the gangland leader and was always able to live up to his nick-name “Sugar Baby” while at the same time looking like he could drive fear into those he commanded. Kazim, also an award-winning actor, created quite a personality for his character. But the plan that he outlined to destablise the country was mere words with nothing in the play to convince an audience that the gang posed any serious threat. So slight was that plot that it did not even matter what plan they had after they “took over the country”. The play did not make the transition from entertaining fictitious fantasy to a gripping tale of terror and espionage.
This carried over into the other characters and situations. Luke-Edwards was very efficient in his playing of Pool, the undercover detective and the missing son who worried his family. He took the role seriously and, in all he had to do in the play, was most convincing in his role as Violet’s boyfriend. This worked well ironically since the audience already knew who he was while both the girlfriend and his family did not. His playing was cool and reassuring, but something was missing if the audience was to believe in the overarching international collaboration between the best of Guyana’s undercover investigation and the highly trained and famed RCMP.
This international team was investigating and closing in on Constantino; the two Canadian officers had infiltrated the gangster’s outfit and were working undercover as two new members of his “Dopa Gang”; Pool’s sister had been controlled by Constantino who made her a drug mule; to make it worse she had become so hooked on cocaine she had to spend some time in the USA on rehabilitation. So how is it that Pool had never heard of Constantino? He was surprisingly clueless when such serious infiltrations had been taking place in his own personal space. All in all he came over as being quite ineffectual as one who was supposed to be top-of-the-line in crime investigation.
This aspect of the play did not convince. It is described as “a thrilling, intriguing, love-action drama.” That is fine. It did not move from that. A drug lord who runs his empire with a bevy of night club strippers, each with a gun in her waist, and who plans to take over the country with that same gang, is indeed a source of mild amusement. What is more, a courier runs off with US$1 million worth of cocaine and hides out nowhere else but in her own apartment, yet this fearful gang did not have a clue where to find her.
As Violet, Yarde, however, convinced. She had to play roles and employed the right combination of acting techniques to satisfy all of them. She moved from seductress, deceiver, to melting, helpless addict hungry for another sniff of crack, defiant self-confident player to truly frightened damsel in distress. Through the inter-connectedness and the striking contrasts that these roles demanded, Yarde successfully navigated her way. She managed to hold that sub-plot of the play together, sustaining much of its intrigue and suspense.
Yet it was obvious that the play’s more plausible interest was in its comic potential. Episodes in the Fennimore household confirmed this. Opera Samuel played Pa Fennimore for humour with the “African Moods” Nigerian accent that is now a fashionable amusement added to mannerisms and character type tailored for laughter. As his wife, Clemencio Godette covered a wider range of playing – certainly she went for the humour where it was asked for while managing to convey more sobering situations when needed.
The household was blissfully preparing for a wedding either not knowing or conveniently postponing any thought of the dangerous signals that occasionally flashed. Timolyn Barclay was believable in a role that helped to move the play towards a parody of both a “love action drama” and a detective thriller. Perhaps the girl was a feather-brain in her denial of reality, since she, more than anyone else in her family, was aware of her fiancé’s criminal identity. She knew she was a victim of it but was still pleading her “love”, defending and arguing for him during the gun-play at the end. This created parody rather than the dramatization of a tense moment.
Similarly Paul Budnah’s role as the Rasta uncle was calculated humour. Budnah was strong and played to suit a role that was not a very serious one in spite of the fact that it was he, rather than the combined bungling forces of the top-flight Guyanese CANU and the slick Canadian RCMP who rescued the situation and finally put Constantino away. This victory brought the play to a happy ending.
It was quite good to bring back a play like this with its significant place in the history of modern and contemporary Guyanese theatre. The production on the whole was well handled by its star-studded cast of award winners.
It was a welcome and timely revisit by Massiah on an effective and well used set. It delivered up the script faithfully and entertained, but in so doing, revealed its many limitations.