Crick Crack, Monkey break he back, for a piece a pomerac… In a Trinidad Guardian article on 21 June, 1970 Derek Walcott described Ti-Jean and His Brothers as his most ‘West Indian’ play. Furthermore, he called this play “the least forced, most spontaneous and least laboured [of his plays thus far] both in rhythm and concept”. However, if you attended Monkey Mountain‘s first performance of Ti-Jean on Thursday 28th May 2015 , you would disagree almost entirely. Honestly, it was the worst performance I have seen
in quite some time….It felt and looked like the most amateur of student productions, which is quite surprising since the cast consisted of a significant number of very skilled actors/ performers like Muhammad Muwakil, Tishanna Williams; Kurtis Gross just to name a few. In retrospect it was the inefficiency of the technical aspects of the production that made the performance difficult to enjoy. (Hopefully they have improved!)
ABOUT THE PLAY:
Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott explores the power of good versus evil, poor versus wealthy and the search for what defines humanness. This folk tale—told by the animals of the rainforest through dialogue, dance and song—tells the tale of a poor widowed mother, her three sons, and their bargain with the devil.
In relation to structure Walcott intentionally ‘bastardized’ greek drama by fusing it with Caribbean storytelling and other indigenous rituals. Furthermore, he claimed to be following in Aeschylus‘ footsteps, he goes as far as making this proclamation within the play itself:
FROG: Greek-croak, Greek-croak.
CRICKET: Greek-croak, Greek-croak.
FROG: (sneezing) Aeschylus me!
Walcott uses the story of the mother and son and their participation in a game of “Who vex loss” with the Devil to examine the Caribbean’s search for it’s place among the global community of sovereign states. In the book Plays for Today, Errol Hill cites John Simmons’ analysis of the play: “the play exists on several levels…” as a simple folk tale, a metaphysical verse play and a relevant black parable inciting to anti-white revolution. Hill also cites Eric Roach’s view that the three brothers are symbolic of the movement of generations through West Indian History. In essence the play is noted as a representation of the struggle against colonialism with the use of Greek and Caribbean theatrical/ritual/folk forms.
With the ticket prices for this production, you’re set up to expect a flawless show. As a theatre goer, when you see ticket prices over $150.00TT, you expect a lot especially when the evening is started with complimentary wine and beautiful house music that really helped to put you in the mood for something great. In the theatre, the set was colourful and the use of gobos for trees on the side of the walls set the mood for a magical experience, so you ‘suspend your disbelief’… and then it began…
The animals appeared with interesting and beautifully coloured costumes and you tell yourself, “brace yourself for a once in a lifetime experience”… however, after a few minutes you began to think that you never want to experience this again. Mouth Open, Story Jump Out! The first half of the performance was poor and the experience didn’t improve by the second! The music overpowered the dialogue and, even when there was no music and the dialogue was heard, you almost never understood what was said. The only characters whose dialogue were clear and distinguishable were Ti-Jean (Muhammed Muwakil) and Gros-Jean (Kurtis Gross). It was obvious that the cast never worked with the set before since they seemed to be fighting each other for what little space was left after the scaffolding for the orchestra and flats were placed on-stage, the lighting cues were slow and mistimed at times often leaving stagehands with no other choice but to awkwardly walk on and off a brightly lit stage to change set while there were blackouts for them to do these actions early on in the performance. Additionally, some of the dances seemed forced unto the play.
The best things about the production were the last song and dance before the curtain call and Danielle Lewis’ almost solo curtain call. This performance looked like a dress rehearsal rather than an actual performance.
THE ACTING: It is important to note that everyone except Muwakil and Gross had problems with enunciation, therefore for most of the play the audience was left wondering what was actually being said. My main critique is that there was a lack of clarity in relation to the dialogue, and I am not quite sure whether it was due to enunciation or technical issues.
Asha Sheppard: Frog
Sheppard’s characterization was good but I just wish that I actually heard her dialogue. I was only aware of what was being said, because I am relatively familiar with the script. Other than that, it wasn’t a bad job, but there is room for growth, especially with combining croaking with dialogue.
Jesus Patterson: Cricket/Goat
There was no clearer indicator that the group never worked in the space with the set or costumes before, than observing this fellow. Cricket’s antennas were so long that they were literally whipping everyone in close proximity to them. However, his control of his body was quite good, and he did really well to compensate for the lack of experience wearing the costume as the play progressed.
Nailah Blackman-Thornhill: Bird
When I recall her performance I think “oh what a nice dancer”…but…other than that, nothing else really comes to mind.
“Work those wings girl!” Parris never let her energy fall, of all the creatures in the forest I remember the firefly most vividly. Simply because she did a really good job in maintaining her character…just wish I heard her dialogue.
Leslie-Ann Lavine: Mother
Lavine’s energy and physicality were ‘on point’, however, I would really have loved to hear her words.
Kurtis Gross: Gros-Jean
I couldn’t imagine a more underwhelming performance from such an experienced actor. It seemed as if he never worked with his hand held prop before, moreover the most belief breaking moment of the play was when he dropped his axe in anticipation for a choreographed ‘dance’ move with Bird. However, it was nice to actually hear his dialogue.
I was left wondering if he ever used the fishing net in rehearsal, since while on stage he seemed to not know what to do with it. However, Salcedo brought an energy and commitment to the performance that kept you alert, but I’m not sure if it was enough to help the audience to maintain a suspension of disbelief.
Muhammad Muwakil: Ti-Jean
One of the most experienced actors, with multiple Cacique awards to his name, Muwakil was the easiest actor/character to follow, though the scene where he played drunk left me confused.
Tishanna Williams: Bolom
Admittedly one of my favourite local actresses/actors, I felt disappointed to witness her performance. While her characterization was good, it was unoriginal…she was obviously imitating ‘Smeagol’ from the Lord of the Ring series, both in body and voice. Furthermore, her enunciation was bad, so I am yet to hear a single word she uttered on stage.
Aaron Schneider: Devil/Planter/Old Man:
“A poor ‘Wendell Manwarren’ imitation”, it looked as if he spent more time trying to imitate Manwarren (the character he seemed to be playing was Mr Manwarren rather than the Devil/Planter) than he spent creating his character(s). I heard bits and pieces of his dialogue, but his performance became labouring to look at since it seemed as if he was struggling with remembering his lines. So much so that Muwakil seemed to be attempting to help push the play forward while Schneider seemed to really want to remember his lines.
I once heard Dr. L. Efebo Wilkinson say, “You see the hand of the director less when the performance is good, and you see it a lot more when it’s bad”. Well, I couldn’t help but question the producer’s choice in the Director, plays aren’t easy to put together, but this was the worst meshing together of ‘moment to moment’ movement that I can recall having witnessed since watching amateur student productions. I felt as if the Director did not understand the structure or the essence of the play, which led to a wide range of decisions based on spectacle/aesthetics rather than moving the play from beat to beat, moment to moment. Moreover, in my opinion I believe that most of the flaws that I noted earlier regarding the use of the stage showed an inherent lack of understanding of the theater space and what is needed (and not needed) to allow for optimal use of the Little Carib’s intimate setting. This performance is a reminder that despite past achievements, your most current production is most telling, so keep working Christine Johnston, your job not done yet!