There are some theatrical experiences that are so interesting to watch that, years later, you find yourself wanting to see the same thing. Not just the same play, but from the same director and with the cast as intact as possible. It’s the precise experience that you want. Most times, it’s not possible – directors change, or actors can’t return. Most times, the entire vision of a play chances when you take another look at it. But some very rare times, like with The BV Theatre Project‘s 2016 revival of Lester Efebo Wilkinson’s ‘Bitter Cassava’, there are enough pieces in their original places to try to make magic one more time. Then the difficulty is in whether it actually works…
For those who somehow haven’t seen the award-winning folk musical, ‘Bitter Cassava’ is the story of Samuel William Blondell, and the tragedy that befalls him after leaving his common-law wife Justina and their three children, as told through the eyes of the oldest man in the village, Pa Cefus. I understand that when folks hear the words ‘folk theatre’, they maybe don’t think about the word tragedy. But, trust me, this play has as much death as it does music (and a rape scene, if you need a trigger warning).
If you’re wondering, this play is at 37 years old, and directed again by Dr. Wilkinson in probably the same way it was back then as a Best Village Folk Theatre entry for the Best Village Trophy Competition. Its writing reflects a vastly different time, where the gender politics is vastly different to today’s Trinidad (at least we hope). For folks with very acute social justice sensibilities, ‘Bitter Cassava’ is either the most sexist folk play you’ve seen, or the most feminist. This isn’t an indictment – it’s an opportunity for conversation around gender roles in their time and ours. Samuel, on one hand, is a wife-beater praised by other women in the village for his handsomeness and virility. On the other hand is Justina, a loyal wife scorned, laughed at and left in the cold, turned spiteful and murderous. It’s hard to tell who the ‘good guy’ is, if you believe in that sort of thing; Justina becomes a vengeful antagonist, punishing her former lover for his betrayal, and succeeds; Sam cycles between loving husband and violent abuser multiple times, as though both are truly him. From the perspective we’re provided as audience members, it’s easy for us to say that Justina is the wicked one here, but as Fulbright scholar Dylan Paul once said to me about Justina’s character, “Good and evil are difficult concepts. No one really is.”
As far as characters go, they are all vivid ones, even if they’re not what you expect. Muhammad Muwakil, who played Sam in the 2008 run of Bitter Cassava, reprises his role with the same vibrancy and thoughtfulness here (and maybe a little extra aggression).
He’s accompanied by Freetown Collective bandmate/always excellent actress Tishanna Williams as Justina, with a portrayal that is very deliberately uncomfortable to watch in more ways than you might expect. The amazingly talented Ruby Parris plays Sam’s new wife Betty Lou; she’s a joy to look at on stage even when she’s not saying a word, playing every single moment within her reach. Darin Gibson’s Pa Cefus, also returning from the 2008 production, often seems forced, but is so distinct from all the other characters that it’s somewhat acceptable even when it rubs you the wrong way. Playing alongside him is Gervon Abraham as the impatient police officer, providing well-timed comic relief that always hits the mark. Mavis John as Mother Lucy literally hits all the right notes in her short time on stage, benefiting from the comedic setup of her fellow performers.
There are a lot of moments, though, that veer just a bit left from the effect that this amazing play could have. The music, while still powerful and energetic, seems to take place in a much more cheerful place than the story unfolding on stage. Some of the darker moments of the play also don’t go for the unsettling impact that they could have, instead ending quick enough that we know but not feel the trauma this play holds. One might imagine, though, that the decision to take it easy on those scenes was for those who may have suffered abuse in their own lives. After all, one of the nights of this year’s run of ‘Bitter Cassava’ is in benefit of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
If you’ve seen it in 2008 (or even long before), not a lot has changed from this classic play. But that’s not a bad thing. If you enjoyed what you saw the last time you did, want to see what one of your more mature theatre friends was talking about, or just want to peer into the mind of an experienced director like Dr. Lester Efebo WIlkinson, ‘Bitter Cassava’ is the place to be. If you’re looking for a new take on the classic play, this probably isn’t it. But if the play ain’t broken…
The BV Theatre Project’s revival of Dr. Efebo Wilkinson’s “Bitter Cassava” continues 23rd-26th July at the Little Carib Theatre.