Theatre as investigative therapy, or as healing ritual, was demonstrated last week when the production Omega – the Beginning, directed by Nicose Layne and Rae Wiltshire was staged at the Theatre Guild Playhouse, Kingston.
The production was a response by the directors to troubling social situations in the country – in particular, violence against women. It was specifically aimed at normal negative, unhelpful attitudes, urging society to rethink its judgmental reactions when certain actions lead to tragic outcomes. Members of society are too ready to be unsympathetic to behavioural issues and problems among women, teenagers and secondary school students. The production called for understanding and urged a rethink of public attitudes to such angsts as teenage pregnancy.
The play was originally titled The Ritual (Or Friday Morning First Period) and written in 1978 by Zeno Obi Constance, a Trinidadian teacher and playwright. Constance had said he wrote it when he was asked to produce a drama as a response to common issues affecting youths. He consulted students at his school and they identified teenage pregnancy as a burning problem. He therefore set out to write about that, but the play grew into other issues. The play is published in Caribbean Plays for Playing edited by Keith Noel (Heinemann 1985 and Carlong 2001).
The action of the play surrounds five schoolgirls and an absent teacher. The girls are in the classroom awaiting the arrival of their teacher when they come around to discussing the plight of a 16-year-old classmate named Omega who is pregnant. It uses the technique of the play-within-a-play, as the girls act out their friend’s unhappy situation, taking turns in pretending to be Omega while the others play the roles of the different people with whom she has to interact. They pretend to dramatise her story, playing out different scenarios representing her plight. We see Omega sail down the slippery slope from unwanted pregnancy to domestic rejection, irresponsible company, brushes with the police, to prostitution.
The performance is by six actresses – Nathaya Whaul, Abigail Brower, Tikoma Austin, Shontel McLean and Nirmala Narine, as the five girls, with Kimberly Fernandes as the teacher.
The producers Layne and Wiltshire give it their own title: Omega – The Beginning. The name is significant and ironic since omega – the last letter in the Greek alphabet, is generally, in English, regarded as the end. At the time of the play, the girl Omega has ended up in an unfortunate situation, but even though the end of the play leaves her there, the drama is a ritual which plays out her story as “a beginning” – as a stimulus for new thinking and attitudes. It is a first step to understanding her, other girls like her, to cause the audience to go away with a changed attitude to girls who end up in Omega’s position.
It was an excellent performance. The play was tightly directed; not a difficult play, fairly easy in structure and techniques, but well done and presented. There were outstanding performances by Austin, Brower, Fernandes, McLean, Narine and Whaul, all award-winning actresses from successive drama festivals.
They worked very well together, with precision, characterisation and timing. There was superb teamwork with telling impact as a performing cast. They acted with energy and convincing credibility. There was almost no difference among the five schoolgirls – but that appropriately suited the play’s meaning, since any one of them could be Omega. On the other hand, they played with seamless, effortless effectiveness in switching roles. They were intelligent enough not to attempt to be realistic in the various characters they had to depict, using farce, caricature and suggestions in the various character types.
But while the actresses were convincing and thorough, the play was not. The play cautioned against stereotyping, but all the girls were of one type. Deviants, all in active sexual relationships, their normal routine conversation revolved around sex or matters of sexuality; each has “a man”, becoming pregnant was normal and matter-of-fact in the conversations, and likely to happen tomorrow. On the other hand, this, too, might be appropriate to the play because they come around to discussing their friend who actually ends up in that situation, and any of them could be in Omega’s position.
Actually, this fact upon which the whole play is premised, is repeated several times by the characters – “any one of us, or any of you in the audience, is Omega” – so the risk is not taken that the audience might miss it. Neither are several of the play’s other preoccupations – feminist concerns, the schoolgirls going through a ritual in order to fully understand Omega’s situation and its meaning for the lives of all the girls and also for all members of the audience. When one girl says she is done with the ritual play acting and insists she will not continue, another berates her – pointing out that they have to play it out to the end or fail Omega just as the society and the school have failed her – her family has failed her; and this is also played out by the girls.
The problem is the speech is out of character. The same girls who talk of their “man” and about who too ugly to go up for beauty pageant, are also expounding articulately about the tragic outcomes of slavery, the wrongs of society against women, stereotyping and blaming the victim when a teenager gets pregnant, and pronounce knowledgeably upon the ritual of theatre, catharsis and healing. It fails to convince.
Indeed, those are all at the core of the meaning of the play – its concerns and preoccupations. But the schoolgirls who speak those lines would not be able to articulate those issues and the value of the theatrical ritual. They are therefore very obtrusively the mouthpiece of the author, and we actually hear the playwright speaking. Constance leaves nothing up to chance, he tells the audience what his play is about and how they should interpret it.
Towards the end of the play, there is a fitting irony. The absent teacher turns up; and her absence is significant, since she is among those who have failed Omega, and is about to fail the rest of the class. She turns up only to berate and blame the girls for being wayward, unruly students “just like Omega”, who will let down the school just as she has. But the teacher is a part of the problem.
That makes a very dramatic point at the end of the play, but overall, the ending is very weak. The last enactment of the play-within-a-play is a slightly perplexing fertility ritual. They seem to be celebrating Omega’s pregnancy as a gift from the goddess of fertility and thanking her for having provided that blessing. They end in this way, it seems, to express solidarity with Omega. But what is there to celebrate?
Not only is this fertility as a blessing from God a meaningless cliché, but in the context of this play it is quite misleading. Are they celebrating an unwanted pregnancy that put their friend in considerable trouble? That has potentially led to a tragic end? The play interrogates a thorny social situation but offers no practical help or solution. It anatomises reasons for the dilemma but offers nothing to show or chart a way forward. It does not address any strategies of prevention so that none of the other girls become “another Omega”.
Let us remember that drama often sets out to shock society out of complacency and to expose the ills of society. The resolution of a play is entirely up to the playwright who really has no prescription to make positive recommendations. But this play sets itself the role of ritual therapy. Constance titled it Ritual because it is indeed a ritual in theatre with a therapeutic end in mind. Have these girls been empowered to change their flirtations with a dangerous lifestyle?
The playwright needed to have done a little more work after the very good work in irony and in Omega’s friends putting themselves through a ritual for more profound understanding. Hopefully understanding might lead to greater knowledge and knowledge might prevent repetition of the same ill.