Skin Teeth Na Laugh fulfilled roots theatre role

There are some forms of comedy that are currently popular in the Caribbean, including the large theatre communities in Jamaica and Trinidad. As a rule, over the decades, the trends, including in popular drama, take some time to reach Guyana. However, one of these forms, particularly popular in Jamaica, has been seen in a number of performances in Guyana. The most recent play that demonstrated it is not an important one, but significant for the way it reflects a Jamaican trend not fully comprehended or even appreciated in Guyana and seen in only a few plays here so far.

Skin Teeth Na Laugh by Michael James was revisited by Top Cat Arts Agency and directed by Godfrey Naughton last week at the National Cultural Centre with a developing but quite able cast. It reflected trends of comedy that have controlled centre stage across the Caribbean.

The major one is farce – low farce, although there are different kinds. Yet the plays are comedies in the classical sense because there are complications of plot, an element of villainy, and identity mix ups before a happy ending without any profound resolution at all, but one that puts the icing on the funny situation.

The continued currency of one of these types has been confirmed in Trinidad. The most recent popular play staged there was another in the unending series by the leading producer and director of popular plays, Raymond Choo Kong. The popular form most frequently done in Trinidad is fast-paced farce with a rising accumulation of blunders, mix-ups, and characters trying to cover up some innocuous secret but succeeding in tying themselves up in a maze, creating quite a comedy of errors until they manage to escape in the end. There is quite a merry-go-round of slapstick and laughter along the way.

Choo Kong presented one of those that had already been done in Trinidad many years ago. It was reminiscent of Neil Simon’s Rumors, seen last year in Guyana when the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) did it for Performance 8 – their end-of-year production. In Choo Kong’s production a husband comes home from work confused after accidentally gaining possession of a briefcase filled with millions of dollars in cash. He and his wife guess correctly that such a huge sum of money must be the proceeds of some criminal activity, and they soon begin to receive phone calls from a dangerous gangster who has managed to track down the location of the briefcase. The police get into the picture, as do many family members and friends from whom they try desperately to hide their secret. They tie themselves up in a labyrinth of lies and play-acting, lose and regain the briefcase several times before finally and breathlessly ending up millions of dollars richer.

Another kind of low farce goes even deeper in slapstick and buffoonery. It is a more rustic form of the roots play of Jamaica, descended from an earlier form of dancehall comedy. One type is cruder than the other and thrills the audience with the buffoonery and farce. The more interesting variety is the roots with which a few companies tour the countryside of Jamaica and also take overseas on lucrative tours. Examples of these staged by visiting Jamaican companies in Guyana include the Bashment Granny series, Get-Outt! and other samples around the popular favourite Shabada as lead actor.

Aside from all of the slapstick and clowning around, these roots plays are subtler and intriguing.  They contain elements of the classical comedy in occasionally moral resolution and the capture of the rogue or villain who is usually a serious criminal. The buffoon turns out to be a detective in disguise, undercover as a clown, on the trail of a dangerous gangster, whom he captures at the surprise ending of the play. This roots form is also a parody and a hilarious piece of drama.

However, without the subtle characteristics and the stock elements of characters and plot found in those roots plays, a form of roots theatre developed in Guyana over the past 10 years. It was first seen in the rusticity of performance, setting and characters found in an amateur group, the Conquerors of Parika village. It is the deliberate stereotype of a rural East Indian community with stock characters and situations, designed to play for extreme latitudes of laughter. A more sophisticated brand of this rustic Indian theatre has been done by Neaz Subhan.

The roots elements were later demonstrated by a group from Linden directed by Michael James, author of Skin Teeth Na Laugh. Pleasing Mrs Jones was low farce with the typical tactics of spontaneity and clowning, slapstick and audience response found in the roots. As is characteristic in this form of comedy, the unpleasable, insatiable Mrs Jones learns her lesson in the end (‘the rogue reformed’ from the classical comedy).

It is amusing that such plays could carry a moral line and Skin Teeth Na Laugh is a similar kind of comedy. James first produced it in Linden at Lichas Hall a few years ago. It was revised by Naughton for this new production with stage management by a student of NSTAD, O’Neika Bacchus and a NSTAD graduate Donna Fanfair.

The play is quite close in plot to a short comic dramatisation by Lyndon (Jumbie) Jones performed some years ago. It tells the tale of Uncle Paps, played by Naughton, who is recovering from a stroke and is subject to ill treatment and neglect by his niece Denise played by Fanfair, and two nephews – Orvin (Frederick Minty) and Desmond (Kevin Kellman). They suddenly become helpful, loving and caring as soon as they learn that their uncle is about to choose someone to manage $10,000,000 of insurance money.

It is a one-dimensional plot. The old man tricks his wicked, scheming family members and gets the last laugh over them in the end. Although it is a significant play in its demonstration of the roots theatre elements, it is simple and often hilarious. But despite that it still manages to be repetitive.

The play’s lead actress Fanfair gets into the act with energy and spirit, showing how well she can perform a full lead. She understood the type of farce complete with engaging the audience in banter and provoking them to talk back to her. This is a ploy used in roots plays and perfected by the ilk of Oliver Samuels. The role was funny but not one-sided, and the play belonged to Fanfair in her command of the various nuances.

Naughton used his considerable experience in delivering a credible performance as Uncle Paps, managing all the necessary nuances. He directed the play quite effectively, sustaining the pace and energy. If anything, it often got just a little noisy, but that is the nature of the slapstick on which the performance thrived.

The two crooked brothers, Kellman and Minty, were faithful to their characterisation, especially Minty who was consistent and focused in delivering the slightly deformed, but aggressive and violent rogue. Kellman held his own in a convincing portrayal. There was good support from NSTAD student Akeisha Gaul as the neighbour – the typical stock character role found in these farces. Hers was a strong performance.

In some farces, at least one character is required to play a straight role, and this fell to Tristana Roberts as Alice, the only genuine character with care for the uncle’s welfare. Roberts achieved that quite effectively in a performance that was sensitive in the middle of all that farce. But the play spoilt her image at the end when she became a voracious sexual character, which was in conflict with her image as the good angel, deserving of a share in Uncle Paps’ money.

It was a slight, limited script with repetitiousness, but the director and cast made the most of it.  It cannot be regarded as an important Guyanese play, but it is significant as a sample of a rare type of popular roots drama in Guyana.

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