If God is a Trini, what would the afterlife look like for a Trinbagonian?
Carnival Monday and Tuesday 2021 welcomed the fully staged production of M.A.S. (MAS) – a debut into Theatre by Julius Czar (a division of event promotion company, Ceasar’s Army) at the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA).
Julius Czar, led by entrepreneur Jules Sobion along with a team of creatives familiar to the T&T theatre community, produced this music-filled presentation under the promotional headliner of ‘The MAS Movement’. In its official media kit, the production was described as “a reminder of the Carnival spirit we may have lost. Although there is no formal festival, this is an opportunity to seek it, embrace it, rejoice in it.”
While my experience attending this production will be explored in the paragraphs to follow, one major disappointment with the show began long before the opening night. There was some initial skepticism about what exactly ‘MAS’ was going to be. Cryptic promotional videos and some murkiness surrounding the marketing materials released, generated initial confusion. The $300+ price tag in this good guava season didn’t help either, which created further hesitancy to engage the production.
Nevertheless, on receiving the call from the T&T Performing Arts Network to attend and write a review, I welcomed the opportunity to take in “the MAS” at no cost. Had this production been more cohesively promoted through theatre marketing, the nature of the show could have been clarified. And, with what I experienced on Carnival Tuesday evening at NAPA, ‘MAS’ could have more than received my ticket money… on both nights of performance.
Mas was produced by Jayron Remy with stage management by Tonya Evans and Production Management by Llamar Pollard. Writing credit is officially attributed to Muhammed Muwakil with direction of the production done by Tishanna Williams. The story centered around Ratto (Levee Rodriguez), a stick fighter who we met at the beginning of the play motionless on the stage, having just met his end by a ‘bois’ to the head. He is awakened in a cosmic plane of existence, which was represented through set design by a white, dual staircase leading to two elevated platforms stage left and right. Triangular and circular spiral shapes were painted on this platform by artist Nadya Shah, and behind it, larger-than-life digital projections of the universe, actors and other custom animations were beamed onto a massive white backdrop by North Eleven.
A static approach to set design, while economical (and understandable for a one-act play), might demand a bit more consideration for finesse. Masking, decorating or wrapping sights such as nakedly exposed scaffolding/safety railing, for example, would be one of the finishing touches that the production could have considered. NAPA’s stage is one of the largest in the country, and one would have hoped, that with this choice of venue, expectations of a more elaborate set design and higher production value could have been met. Nevertheless, as an audience, we remain ever grateful for any and all theatre happening in these perilous health and financial times.
Ratto journeys through this cosmic plane, and explores realms of a pantheon of five (5) Carnival Spirits: Moko, Kaiso, Robber, King Pierrot and the Jamette/La Diablesse . Costumed by Kimmy Stoute Robinson with makeup by David Williams, these five Spirits lorded over their respective domains, educating Ratto on their roles in the afterlife. They ranged from benevolent to hostile and were characterized as the guardians of the missing pieces of Ratto’s soul; pieces he had to retrieve before he could return to the land of the living with all his lessons learned.
“If God is a Trini, what would the afterlife look like for a Trinbagonian?” In general, MAS evoked this and many other philosophical questions surrounding identity, culture and belonging through a fascinating exploration of music, folklore and Carnival archetypes within Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural lexicon.
Each of the realms of the Carnival afterlife held its own custom charm, enhanced by the appearance of minor characters and dancers with choreography by Deon Baptiste and effective lighting design by Ovation Lighting.
One of the invigorating parts of experiencing ‘MAS’ was its multi-layered approach to storytelling, which incorporated a combination of physical performances, dialogue, visual cues, digital projection with animation, lighting changes, music, and lyrical content to communicate each of the lessons of the Carnival Spirits.
The context-rich interplay of these elements all worked together to amplify Ratto’s adventure and transformation. The use of remote camera projection was particularly clever. The actors playing the Carnival Spirits were filmed live off stage. They were then projected onto NAPA’s white cyclorama, which was elevated behind the actors, who performed to the audience. Even with a narrow range of motion limited by camera framing, excellent direction by Tishanna Williams gave the Carnival Spirits full character expression, plus seamless interaction with the actors downstage-center.
Now about the performances, Kevin Humprey as Moko gave a solid opening, setting the tone for the spirits to come. With fatherly patience he encouraged Ratto to see beyond the superficial into a life and existence greater than he had imagined.
Of particular note was Kearn Samuel, who personified Kaiso with a humorous interlude that was warmly welcomed by the audience. In the spirit realm of ‘the Kaiso Show’, Samuel gave an animated and engaging performance. Garbed in a brightly coloured shirt and wide-brimmed, “newsboy” hat, he was accompanied by a trio of faithful denizens, the Kaiso Show background singers – a comedy fest of their own.
Another thrilling moment came when Ratto met the malevolent spectre of growling words and vengeance, The Robber. Derron Sandy as The Robber was a master of his monologues, a strong testament to his spoken word and poetry roots. Ratto did not stand a chance against his relentless onslaught of bombastic words.
On the technical side of things, one can’t help but be a bit picky given the general good standard of the production. The dialogue exchanges between the Robber and Ratto were lost at times between the thundering roll of drums and the nerve-jolting whip cracks of two actual, live Whip Jabs who flanked Ratto on stage. Dramatic: yes. Effective in enhancing the communication of the scene: not so much. Nevertheless, moving expression, well-timed choreography, good direction and pacing, along with sharply executed cues and emotional commitment made this one of the most powerful scenes of the production.
The wily King Pierrot, the Keeper of Lyrics was brought to life by Arnold Goindhan who maintained a regal presence and authority while transitioning between several moods including wise, benign grace, prolific orator, to stuttering temper tantrum.
Not to be forgotten was the Jammette/La Diablesse, played by an outstanding and captivating Rhesa Samuel, who brought all the thunder and fury of Dante’s fifth circle of hell upon the head of the unsuspecting Ratto.
She appeared overhead in a beautiful side profile, adorned with accessories and wearing coquettish puffed sleeves. She was soon revealed to be a two-faced deity of beauty and grotesque rage: very similar to the archetypes of the Maiden and the Crone.
It is often proclaimed that “Carnival is woman”. For this scene, it seemed as though the screams, cries and pleas of suffering, abused, neglected and murdered women across the country joined forces and commingled into one, very angry Carnival monster.
What followed was a scathing soliloquy of pepper, fire, razorblades and every verbal weapon available to Jamette/La Diablesse, striking harder than the actual live whips that graced the stage in the realm of The Robber.
This Spirit spoke of the role of women in the struggle against oppression being largely erased, the pressure to remain beautiful for the many men who passed through her realm, the obligation to offer comfort, nurturing, forgiveness, sanctuary, and her utter disgust with the overwhelming sacrifices required. She told Ratto of the reward for such grace, which was often a pittance, or nothing, or worse.
Nothing lashes harder than the truth.
A crowning jewel of the production was the sensitively accompanied score and artiste performances under the musical direction of Kyle Peters, with support from Vizion Musiq Entertainment. The selected artistes were programmed into the production either within a spirit realm or as an interlude between realms. The show’s set list could easily transition into a saleable soundtrack for MAS, given the strength of the live performances and musical arrangements. Each song was perfectly complementary to the story as we followed Ratto on his journey to reconstitute his soul, and metaphorically, the Carnival.
There were still a few technical flaws such as moments of lag between musical transitions, late artist entry cues and stage entries and departures that could have been tightened or better choreographed.
We also saw the realm of the Theatre Spirits and the Fete spirits competing for supremacy often, with an appreciative audience in the middle – well entertained by the battle occurring on stage. For some artistes, the musical transitions were seamless, their performances merging harmoniously from the dialogue of the previous scene. David Bereaux, Marva Newton and Mistah Shak must be commended here.
For others, such as Erphaan Alves, it was a struggle to understand his muffled diction on improvised lyrics, in spite of his passionate physicality. One cannot be sure as to whether Jimmy October’s somewhat tentative presentation was due to the tranquility of the song, or to having to fill the NAPA center stage alone. In contrast, Mical Teja appeared restless in the space to which he was confined on the raised, stage right platform. In performance, he repeatedly stepped off mark and out of his spotlight, which was a distraction. A bit more thought into blocking and direction for the artistes was needed here, and the tenets of movement in Musical Theatre could have been better applied.
As for The ‘Queen of Bacchanal’, I must address the assessment of her performance in a paragraph of its own, as befitting her queendom. Destra Garcia’s performance on Carnival Tuesday night was electric. While she could have avoided incorporating so many elements of fete crowd-management tactics in the middle of a theatre production, Destra gave us one of the best performances of the 2021 (not Carnival) season combining stage presence in gold and black, with full-bodied power vocals at Soca superstar quality. She embodied and represented the victorious resilience of women too long overshadowed, unacknowledged and underrated by “commercial” and “competition” Carnival. Brava Diva.
All in all, the Julius Czar team must be commended and congratulated for its launch into local theatre. This was a courageous effort by all parties and a one-of-a kind transition. Jules Sobion’s theatrical debut might have raised eyebrows in certain corners, but the diversification was a natural fit for the entrepreneur, given his early love of English Literature and his recent assignment as a member of the Board of Directors at the NAPA.
“I have always been fascinated by the world of theatre,” explained Jules Sobion in a post show email interview. “I was always intrigued by the works of Shakespeare…that’s when I first started calling myself ‘Julius Caesar’, after the play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.”
Sobion learned one of the fundamental lessons of theatre, for a truly remarkable and impactful theatre production – you need time.
“The team that I assembled to make the ‘MAS’ practically made the impossible a reality – as we basically came together and mobilized this production in virtually less than six weeks… For my next theatre project, I definitely want to ensure that more time is on my side so that I can execute more effectively.”
Sobion also intends to marry his two worlds of event and theatre management by creating an avenue for “fete performers” to be featured within a theatrical story landscape.
“MAS was indeed the opening of a “whole new world”…and I would love to continue this exploration with other artistes that are traditionally only considered for events and fetes.”
Sobion also has an eye for revolutionizing the local theatre experience beyond the stage by adding elements to improve the overall customer experience.
“Just like I did with my events (Caesar’s Army), I can add a whole lot more…such as branded tokens/care packages, interactive novelty items, futuristic special effects/audio visuals, themed hospitality and so on.”
‘MAS’ appears to be the start of an exciting direction for theatre in Trinidad and Tobago. Generally one hopes that Julius Czar’s entry into the theatre production landscape will continue to enhance the quality of the T&T performing arts. This is a collaboration that should be welcomed by all, and kudos must be given to all involved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Charles-Farray is a passionate advocate for the arts and the creative industries and a Marketing Strategist and Publicist with a Bachelor of Business degree from the University of New Brunswick, Canada and a Master of Marketing degree from the University of the West Indies/Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business. For the past eight years in the Trinidad and Tobago Creative industry to today, she continues to offer her creative marketing services to a wide cross-section of sectors primarily Fashion, Film, Animation, Theatre, Dance and Music. In September 2019 she founded Black Collar Creative Ltd.