The play Watch De Ride 3 recently performed at the National Cultural Centre made a number of apposite statements. It virtually confirmed recent trends in Guyanese theatre in terms of dramatic types and subjects, audience and audience behaviour. This includes the important factor of audience preferences. It highlighted the main focus of contemporary Guyanese drama at the moment and the prevailing factor of the popular theatre. But the play registered its own statement while aiming to be entertaining. Of great interest in all of this is the way it tried to be relevant.
Watch De Ride 3, which was sub-titled “Snap Chat Blues”, is the latest drama by prominent Guyanese dramatist Ronald Hollingsworth. As a major national playwright, more than many others living overseas, he has been fairly prolific and has sustained a strong presence on the local stage. There has been an unending series of his plays every year produced in Guyana by H and T Theatre Arts Group directed by Hollingsworth and Sheron Cadogan-Taylor. They have repeated old plays, including some popular favourites and introduced new ones.
This is a new one, directed by Cadogan-Taylor who has distinguished herself in this series of productions, rising to be one of the foremost established directors and producers on the local stage. In this play, her Assistant Director was Malcolm De Freitas.
There can be speculations about why the size of the audiences for these plays have declined. At one time in the mutability of recent audience history the popular crowds would have raved over a drama like this, but for the moment at least, local audience choices seem fairly well settled. They now respond most overwhelmingly to comedy, or rather farce and stand-up comedy. But what is entrenched and now constant is the presence of a popular audience engaged in “talk back”. They demonstrate a living response to the familiar social issues treated on stage by the current plays of social realism. Surely they connected with the situations presented in Watch de Ride as evidenced by the ubiquitous running commentary, choric remarks thrown at the action and characters, and talking back to the actors.
As indicated, this latest work by Hollingsworth conformed to the settled trend, the long established social realism in Guyanese drama. Hollingsworth is a social realist and a leader in the field in Guyana, so that is not surprising. Also predictable was the choice of title – a factor of the popular play which rides upon the fact that Watch De Ride 1 and 2 were box office hits. Number 3 would then suggest another sequel designed to appeal to the crowds.
But it is not a sequel – it is very much an independent play drawing in similar fashion on quite another immediate burning social issue. Both previous works in the Watch de Ride series dramatised the minibus phenomenon in the popular culture with its magnetic but dangerous practice of “bus riding” within a pervasive popular urban sub-culture. Its topic is different although it is the same kind of play treating a burning problem facing families, which, presented on stage, is familiar to the audience with dramatic intrigues and grass-roots appeal. The attachment of the sub-title “Snap Chat Blues” was of little consequence and less clear.
Compared to the two that went before it, Watch De Ride 3 is a decidedly better play – quite sound in a social statement of its own and free from the weaknesses of its predecessors.
It is a melodrama founded on a domestic dilemma in the manner of a tragi-comedy. Its main subject is teen-age pregnancy, teen sexuality and related complications. The first reaction to such topics is that they might have crowd appeal but are unoriginal, hackneyed and so often and commonly revisited that they appear over-worked. But the play surprised with a new statement; it is moralistically fresh and does not cover the same old ground as so many others even though it starts out with the same basic dramatic situation. It is actually very interesting the way the situation is handled and surprisingly has something different to say. Still, it never forgets its popular leaning and reflects many predictable positions but those are overridden by the newness in its offer of a blueprint for progressive behaviour and a happy ending befitting the tragi-comedy.
In the beginning there is the usual tale of teenage hanky-panky with its misdirected desire for peer approval ending in the dilemma presented by pregnancy. There are some typical characters and typical behavioral responses to the problem. For example, the outraged parents of the girl involved played by Nathaya Whaul and Sean Thompson. They did not play these roles predictably, but convinced as the persons they represented – short-sighted, insensitive parents taking a typical punitive line. The acting of both Whaul and Thompson was strong as they understood the stereotypes they played without resorting to caricatured stereotypical acting. They were equally up to the changes they had to go through at the end, climbing down from self-righteous positions and the eating of humility at the news of their abandoned daughter’s success.
The string of typical characters and behaviour patterns continued with Nicola Moonsammy as the mother of the boy involved in the delicate dilemma, and the (also typical) ‘upright’ pastor of the church played by Simone Dowding. Moonsammy studied her role as a lawyer’s wife mainly interested in facades and social appearances, equally adept at standing on a high moral ground and descending to bitchy abuses and subterfuge. She well interplayed the abuser and the assumed victimhood. Paul Budnah was the minor ‘typical’ character: a straightforward role of the police officer.
Among the strengths of the play was its manner of critical commentary. It used those characters to criticise the society and challenge the moralistic positions that people take. A predisposition to uphold appearances of morality can be counter-productive and, as in this case, lead to tragic outcomes. Lack of careful thought end up as lack of care.
The play is strong in its criticism of the church. Officials take narrow inflexible positions justified by protestations of puritan morality. This is satirised in the portrayal of the pastor who brings some humour to the performance. Dowding plays one of the typical characters, very entertaining in her playing of the pastor as a glutton (gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins) so that laughter aimed at this pastor was an effective challenge to the role of the church. Dowding understood the subtleties.
The play also introduced the question of class. The ‘aggrieved’ parents of the girl at the centre of the conflict took a position that their daughter, and themselves by extension, were victims of abuse by the more privileged members of society – in this case the middle-class boy and his father who is a lawyer. There was very effective irony in that it was the lawyer whose progressive, radical and intelligent handling of the case brought solutions, averted the tragedy and effected a happy ending.
Mark Luke Edwards commanded that role. It was one character against flawed social opinion. Luke-Edwards astutely portrayed this hero standing against them all – the girl’s parents, the church and even his own wife – to bring sanity to the chaos. He grew in stature as the play progressed and was very instrumental in the achievements of the production.
Kimberly Fernandes and Nelan Benjamin as the troubled teenagers were very credible in playing that age. Benjamin handled subtleties well, he was not representing a stereotype and played a believable individual in those testing circumstances. Fernandes was outstanding, just as convincing in a fairly difficult role that depended on what the actress could to it. She navigated emotional variables successfully with a commendably sensitive performance. Leon Cummings was the other teenager in the play who played his role with confidence and understanding. He allowed the play’s further criticism of peers, classmates and false “friends” to be clearly communicated to the audience.
In all of these ways, the production, skillfully negotiated by Cadogan-Taylor, tackled a common domestic situation that is often not handled well. It showed man against society and highlighted what is wrong with the typical common responses. Above all it demonstrated what was in fact a very constructive humanitarian way of dealing with a usually thorny, domestic issue. In these ways Watch De ride 3 celebrated its relevance.