REVIEW: RIDDIM NATION – the Dragon that Couldn’t Dance

For the second year of mas-less carnival, Czar (an appendage of events brand, Caesar’s Army) could be found welcoming crowds to NAPA on carnival Monday and Tuesday, rather than chipping behind a Tribe/Rogue truck from J’ouvert into las lap. In 2021, they gave us Mas: Magic and Spirit. In 2022, I spent my carnival Monday evening at Riddim Nation.

The creative concept of Riddim Nation (developed by Caesar himself; known by government name Jules Sobion), has great potential. It is about the metaphorical song of Trinidad and Tobago and its carnival, by extension. That is, a tune played and sung by a fusion of riddims from the ethnic influences that make up our cultural landscape – the African, the Asian, the European and so on. It holds a profound message about music as a pathway to interculturalism.

The narrative focused on the character of Broko, played by Kearn Samuel, an aspiring moko jumbie who lacks natural rhythm. Under the aspersions of his mother, Singing Shirley (played by Destra Garcia) and girlfriend, Sexy Sue (Syntyche Bishop) Broko seeks the help of artistes and instrumentalists to harness his riddim. By the end: spoiler alert, he finds it.

Singing Shirley (Destra Garcia) and Broko (Kearn Samuel) in RIDDIM NATION (2022) | Photo Credit: Joel Peters Photography

Riddim Nation headlines as ‘carnival theatre’, but the structure of the show is difficult to describe. In last year’s production, there was a play with intervals of performances by artistes (primarily soca), all backed by an offstage live band. In Riddim Nation, the artiste performances were somewhat incorporated into the play, and sometimes not, which is where part of the problem lies. The permeable line between the story world (of Broko, Sexy Sue, Singing Shirley & traditional characters) and the concert world (of Farmer Nappy, Mistah Shak, Nishard M and all the rest) was not very well navigated. This handicapped the narrative, while the performances themselves remained unscathed.

For the most part, Riddim Nation was a pretty production of what might best be described as a cultural variety show. It brought the colour and excitement of carnival onto the theatre stage. The concert portion of the night was brilliant. Lois Lewis and the Jeunes Agape kicked off the performances, whetting our appetite with melody and movement. Terri Lyons gave everything that there was to give and then some. Drupatee and Nirshard M charmed us with riddim. Destra gave us vocals nonpareil and Shurwayne Winchester closed off the show by sending the crowd into euphoria. 

The show looked good, and it sounded good too – hats off to the tech team at NAPA for handling all the riddims so well. Overall however, the theatre portion of Riddim Nation was a Lovelacean dragon. It looked nice, it had the costume, but it could not dance. This dragon had quite a severe limp. The overarching problem, I fear, is a team without sufficient expertise to handle and properly execute a show of this calibre and complexity. What the audience got was a dress rehearsal of sorts, with a $350 price tag in this hot hot guava season.

The show had glaring technical flaws from the minute the curtain opened. ‘Flaws’ here, not referring to natural challenges and malfunctions that come with theatre, but to theatrical elements that were not very well thought out.

There was far too much locomotion between scenes, which ultimately made the production feel laboured. Between the core band, tassa band, tamboo bamboo band, steelband, two physical backdrops, visual projections and the mobile cyclorama, there was a lot going on. Some scenes had too much set and others had none, but each of them took a great amount of heaving to get on and off the stage. One of the beauties of originally written theatre is that there is much flexibility to work around and avoid these unnecessary complications. Alas, there were many unnecessary complications.

Broko (Kearn Samuel) and Desperadoes in RIDDIM NATION (2022) | Photo Credit: Joel Peters Photography

When studying stage management, one of the first rules you would learn is ‘No audience should be left in the dark for more than 15 seconds’. Another rule would be to ‘minimize the use of blackouts’. Some grace is afforded to musicals, simply because the transitions are normally scored into the music of the play. Riddim Nation took this grace, soaked it, jooked it on the jooking board, wrung it out thoroughly and then hung it out on the line. It was coosoomehing in grace! I cannot exaggerate how long the transitions were. After the third blackout, I pulled out my phone and started timing each transition. The longest was 7 minutes and 40 seconds. The shortest was 2.5 minutes, and there were many in between. To make matters worse, each transition was accompanied by the same instrumental track followed by the same video projected onto the cyclorama. By the culmination of the show, I had unintentionally memorized both song and video.

Nonetheless, there was an admirable attempt to integrate digital media in the live production. Some of the projections were indeed pretty, but there goes that limping dragon again. The execution was subpar. I would say that they did not actually complement the stage action in the way that they could – as we saw in last year’s show. After the onerous blackouts, some scenes began with voiced over animations of Broko, the protagonist. The strange aspect is that the onscreen Broko was depicted as a young boy whilst the onstage Broko was a quite obviously grown Kearn Samuel. While the animations were just something else to look at, they did not add any more value to the scenes than an actor in the flesh would have.

The projections shown during the scenes were a hit and a miss, with many missed cues. Some gave the effect of a well-designed PowerPoint presentation, while others distracted from the dialogue rather than supporting it. At points where projections could have been useful, the screen stood blank. The closing credits, which were cued several minutes too early, must have been testing my photographic memory as each slide rushed off the screen after just a second of being shown.

Long transitions aside, the play needed much rescuing from a rather unsophisticated script. Penny Gomez’s aptitude for media did not seem to translate into theatre as playwright & director. The writing, though rich in historical details on the emergence of different riddims locally, was very instructive, laden with exposition and unnatural. The spokespeople of different riddims – the African drummer, tamboo bamboo man, the moko jumbies, the tassa man and the steelpan man all stepped up to the plate as actors. It was a treat to see that Johann Chuckaree is not just a master of pan, but the man could ACK!

However each scene went like: Broko expresses a need to find his rhythm, then several people lecture him on the history of particular rhythms with accurate years, historical events et al., then they perform and the scene ends. There is no arc in the narrative that leads Broko to eventually find his rhythm. It seems that he picks it up by chance at some point in between the morning assemblies. Nonetheless Kearn Samuel brought his amazing stage presence (as he always does) to the character of Broko, but the script led him to listen to, and spectate at, a series of stilted lectures – no pun intended – and artiste performances.

As I mention spectating, there was a lot of that happening on stage. In one scene, I counted 28 persons onstage – all spectating as I did in the audience. Earlier I mentioned the permeability of the line between the actors’ world and the artistes’ world in Riddim Nation. Since the scenes were written to incorporate the musicians, and the musicians were onstage during said scenes rather than in the pit, the musicians (should) inevitably become part of the acting. This would demand full commitment to the role and the action, in the same way that the spoken actors would deliver. However, this was another limp for the dragon. It is clear that the band (with the exception of musical director, Enrico Camejo, who certainly understood the assignment) was prepared to appear as a band and not a cast. That’s completely fair on their part, but although they sounded good when they played, overall, their onstage presence did not work for the spectacle of the play. 

The Band Room in RIDDIM NATION (2022) | Photo Credit: Joel Peters Photography

The permeable line also disrupted dramatic unities of place and action while peeping over half of a broken fourth wall. Take for example, the band rehearsal scene (which Broko enters with no real justification about his presence in the bandroom). It is announced as a rehearsal. Mistah Shak subsequently enters, speaks briefly to the band and performs. Brian London is next, but never makes it onstage for some reason. By the time Nishard M enters, he switches the scene from the bandroom to real time, onstage in front of NAPA’s audience on carnival Monday. All the while, Terri Lyons and other band members enter and exit the scene without cue, through whichever wing is nearest, rather than the designated invisible door to the room. Every now and again, a tech crew member enters to move something on or off the stage during the scene. These are things that ought to happen in a tech rehearsal and not in front of a paying audience. These messy movements continued throughout the play, spoiling the wholeness of the story world and making us all too conscious of the backstage business. 

It is a shame to see Syntyche Bishop’s talent given to a character of as little consequence or substance as Sexy Sue. She looked stunning, but again, the Riddim Nation dragon limps. Destra Garcia’s single acting scene had little chance, as it moved from her chasing Broko for stealing from the pot, to questioning him about his rhythm and giving a brief rhythm lesson before resigning to the end of scene. None of these are narratively linked.

Sexy Sue (Syntyche Bishop) and Broko (Kearn Samuel) in RIDDIM NATION (2022) | Photo Credit: Joel Peters Photography

I must commend the Czar team on improvements from last year’s marketing. The promotional material was much more focused and relevant to the play though it still left questions open about ‘What exactly is this this show?”. The audience numbers however, were low, and comparably so to last year’s presentation. Whether it is the marketing or the pricing at fault, I cannot say.

Altogether, I have seen and been involved in many a theatre production where the prospects seem shaky until the holy spirit of the stage enters the cast and crew on opening night, and everything falls into place. That spirit didn’t show up to Riddim Nation, and I believe it’s because the production team underestimated the level of work, rehearsal, dotting of Is and crossing of Ts. It gave the energy of a heavily sponsored secondary school carnival show with an absentee/vikey-vi drama teacher in charge. After all this, if Jules Sobion intends, as he says, to export his brand of carnival theatre, there is intense therapy to be done to nurse this limping dragon back to health. Here’s to hoping for his third production, he catches his second wind.

RIDDIM NATION (2022) | Photo Credit: Joel Peters Photography

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Harmony is a poet, actor, dancer, stage singer, researcher, educator, content creator…and the list goes on! In 2019 she graduated from the Guildford School of Acting/University of Surrey with a first class honours degree in Theatre & Performance with Creative Writing, where she grew an interest in writing about the arts. Her passion for performing emerged somewhere between being involved as an ensemble member & soloist for groups in musical theatre, parang, choral singing, dance (ballet, tap and contemporary), spoken word, comedy videos and again, the list can go on. Harmony’s writing is situated between her scholarly focus and her practitioner’s insight.

In 2021 she was awarded the title of Youth Writer of the Year by the Bocas Lit Fest for her theatre reviews and blogs about Caribbean culture. In her capacity as ‘Hotfoot Harmony’, she produces educational content for social media about the lesser known aspects of Trinbagonian culture. She currently works as a secondary school drama teacher while pursuing an MA in Cultural Studies at the U.W.I.

One comment

  1. An extremely pointed, succinct, and honest review. It captures every aspect of the production and gives the team every tool necessary to improve going forward.

    Also, it was very well written! I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end. Excellent work as always Harmony.

    Like

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