It’s hard to imagine a greater tabanca than Trinidad and Tobago without Carnival; in the second year of this Covid-19 pandemic, the tabanca was real. Enter Czar productions with their second Carnival theatre instalment, Riddim Nation; a supposed balm to the tabanca of two years without “The Greatest Show on Earth”. I did not have the pleasure of attending their debut production, last year, so Riddim Nation was my first taste of Czar’s special mix of theatre and events production.
The Carnival Tuesday performance (1st March, 2022) kicked off a little after the advertised 7:30 p.m. with the rambunctious rhythms of the Shooting Stars Tassa group. The stage would later be graced by a stacked roster of consummate entertainers including soca sensations Farmer Nappy, Destra Garcia, and Shurwayne Winchester; chutney superstars Drupatee and Nishard M; Calypso maestros Terri Lyons, Mistah Shak and Brian London; legendary ensemble, The Desperadoes, pore-raising vocal performances by Juenes Agape; and pannist extraordinaire, Johann Chuckaree. The show was also kept pumping by the immensely talented musicians of the live band.
As for the story, it’s a simple one; it follows Broko (Kearn Samuel) an aspiring Moko Jumbie, who has no “riddim”. He must go back to the roots of Carnival, learn the history of the music that shaped us as a nation, in order become the Moko Jumbie he wants to become.
The basic premise could have the potential for interesting artistic explorations of the relationship between people, music, mas, and Carnival, but in the end, the narrative came across like a hollow outline rather than a fully developed story.
Broko was a one-dimensional character, and goes through the play as the punchline to all the jokes made by the everyone he encounters, which is funny at first… but with diminishing returns. At the start, his fellow Moko Jumbies give him piccong and tell him to fix his rhythm problem. The same interaction happens with his mother, Singing Shirley (Destra Garcia), and his girlfriend (Sexy Sue). Some try to help him overcome his crisis by educating him about his heritage, his culture, and the timeless ancestral riddim that beats within him.
His journey of discovery starts at the pan yard, that magical musical place where an alchemy of steel and sweat serve as the foundation for the rhythm of Carnival. Here practitioners of the arts teach Broko about the riddims of Carnival. A member of the Desperadoes ensemble teaches him about pan’s history before their rousing performance. Others teach him about things like tamboo bamboo and kalinda (stick fighting), the connection to Africa, the reason they endure today. He also learned about calypso and the influence of chutney music in Carnival and soca. The stories and histories being talked about on the stage are ones that most of us know already, but they are things that bear repeating. However, these scenes felt a little more like a secondary school history lesson than dramatic dialogue. As appreciative as I am for educating and raising awareness, I was grateful for the lessons to be broken up by the musical performers who were without exception phenomenal.
In the transitions between Broko’s scenes we were also treated to an exhilarating stick fighting match and an amazing Pierrot Granade (Zakiya Gill) monologue. Gill’s body language and delivery of the well-written Pierrot lines were top notch, and the stunned silence at the end of her piece before the applause erupted spoke volumes. The highlight of the night for me was without a doubt the Midnight Robber (Derron Sandy) scene. Sandy’s prowess as a spoken word artist was on full display as his Midnight Robber sauntered down the rows between the audience towards a haunting tableau of Carnival characters on stage. The lighting, direction, and Sandy’s electrifying performance of a fantastically written Robber speech all made the scene stand out. It definitely helped that the Robber did not try to teach Broko to wine.
Finally, it all culminated in Broko learning to dance, tapping into the soul of Carnival with the Midnight Robber on J’ouvert Monday, and having his triumphant reunion with Sexy Sue while on stilts and on riddim on Carnival Tuesday. Elle Infiniti dance group swarmed the stage as Carnival revellers in bands, crossing the theatre stage on Carnival Tuesday with all the energy and flair of a mas band ‘crossing d stage’. The scene of the bands crossing felt a bit over-long, but the vibes of the talented dancers helped to compensate for this.
I wish I could give a more nuanced comment on the actors’ performances in this show, but the script was so weak and the characters so flat that the actors weren’t given much with which to leave a lasting impression. Kearn Samuel’s Broko was humorously clumsy and clueless. Syntyche Bishop played Sexy Sue with all the innuendo and raunch that the name implies in her brief appearances. Destra Garcia’s acting debut as Singing Shirley delivered on the expected stage presence and surprised with great comedic timing in her short scene which only served to make me excited to see where her new theatrical journey takes her next and disappointed that she wasn’t given more to do.
Terri Lyons also deserves a nod here for how naturally funny and charismatic she is. Even the moments when she was just sitting in the background while other characters were conversing in the foreground, her little asides and gestures landed just right, another musician who seems like a natural fit for the stage. It was my enjoyment of Lyons’ performance that made me realise that the best parts of the show came from the established entertainers who brought their acts and charisma pre-packaged to the show, and not necessarily from the show’s original content.
Technically, the show felt just a little sloppy. On a stage with minimal set design, the transitions between scenes felt long, causing a definite lag in the “riddim” of the show itself, which is hard to ignore in a show of this name. While understandable to some extent, given the array of instruments to move in and out, there were a few moments within the show that proved that the transitions could have been handled better. For example, the excellent stick fighting piece and Johann Chuckaree’s spectacular solo were done during one such transition, transfixing the audience and adding dynamic elements to the rhythm of the show, instead of an extended pause with drawn curtains. Additionally, the lighting and sound seemed like it struggled to keep up with the transitions at times. This was noticeable with the Pierrot Granade and the stick fighting scenes where spotlights came in late, and a few sound moments with hiccups in the background tracks that were playing.
The production team should, however, be commended on their sound design. All the musicians could be heard clearly, the instruments sounded heavenly, and there was no issue with hearing dialogue at any point.
The incorporation of digital media was also an ambitious feature. Most striking was the animated segments at the beginning of several scenes. The animated sequences were only about Broko and Singing Shirley and I couldn’t help but feel like it would have been more engaging to get more scenes of Destra and Samuels on stage instead of simple black-and-white animation. The artistic choices made in the animation also seemed out of step with the characters on stage. Broko was represented as a child in the clips, but is played as an adult in the play, and while the first animated scene came across as a flashback, later scenes were more confusing and unclear about when it was supposed to be taking place.
The use of the projector screen to show historical images or pictures of important people while characters delivered their lessons was a nice touch but leaving it on with just the bottle and spoon logo for other scenes felt less necessary. There was also a sombre moment of silence for the many great cultural artists that have passed recently that resonated on this Carnival Tuesday in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Czar Productions is doing something very interesting in this marriage of Carnival, music and theatre. The shortcomings of this production show that this special brand of Carnival Theatre could benefit from some workshopping and maybe a bit more time spent on developing a stronger script. Nonetheless, the weaker narrative and character work, the show’s technical issues, were things that came second very bad Carnival tabanca that almost every Trinidadian feels right now; the sweet soca, pan and mas, the journey back to the roots and soul of our culture, it undeniably hit a sweet spot on that Carnival Tuesday. Imperfect, yes, but somehow Czar almost managed to condense so many elements of Carnival on stage that I left NAPA with less of a Carnival tabanca than I came in with.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, Shazim Khan here! I’m a student of literature at UWI, which happened as a result of a long time fascination with words in all their various forms and mediums. I also have a deep affinity for the arts on the whole, especially music of all genres – I’m an amateur guitarist.
I’ve recently been introduced to the fascinating world of theatre. The spellbinding magic that can be so expertly conjured on stage has captivated me and inspired a desire to learn and experience as much as possible of this timeless and magnificent craft.