Review: Bitter Cassava – A Classic Story that Still Holds Relevance

Easter Saturday night in Tobago (16th April, 2022) offered many tempting options for entertainment in every corner of the island. However, at 7PM there was only one place to be – the Collibri Ballroom at the Magdalena Grand Resort, whose walls would echo with reverberant chants of patois, praise, vengeance, and sorrow. While the rest of the island’s rhythm pulsed to the beat of the pumping nightlife, the Tobago Performing Arts Company (TPAC) made their theatrical debut with Dr. Lester Efebo Wilkinson’s timeless classic, Bitter Cassava. What followed was a beautiful performance of a brilliant play, showcasing the immense talent that the TPAC crew has to offer.

Centering itself around the troublesome figure of Sam, Bitter Cassava explores the many ways toxic masculinity is propped up and reinforced by society. Pa Cephus is the elder who sees first, has wise, sad proclamations about the younger generation, and yet he protects Sam, forgives and excuses his abusive behavior. The women around Sam also enable him. Seeing the group of women band together in their degradation and condemnation of Justina because she couldn’t “keep” Sam was a painful and grotesque experience, a response that serves as a testament to the emotive performances in the scene. Even the reverent Papa Iban who commanded the respect of old and young alike, who was in touch with the higher powers like no one else in society, seemed to assign Sam’s actions not to his own agency, but to destructive and external evil forces. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Will Smith’s quip at the Oscars about how “the devil comes for you”. Religion, friends, family, the play does an excellent job at exposing how the rhetoric of “he’s really a good boy, you know”, despite the actions that show otherwise, can lead to real violence and inflict real damage.

Dwayne White Jr as Sam, the #1 village ram in Bitter Cassava (2022) | Photo credit: Island Vision Creative

Dwayne White Jr. gave a phenomenal performance as Sam, around whom the story is centered. His cocky swagger in his womanizing days, his romantic dreamboat chivalry during his redemptive phase, and finally his uneasy unravelling as the end drew near, White Jr. hit all the notes of his character with grace and skill that went a long way in transmitting the charisma and callous nature of Sam – the number one village ram.

Playing the tragic woman scorned opposite White Jr. was an intense Kedisha Thomas as Justina. Thomas gave a powerhouse performance, digging into the anguish of her character, using her body language and bone-chilling cries to convey the sense that Justina was being torn apart by the injustices done to her. She also absolutely nailed the transition to eerie La Diablesse in the second act with her haunting cackle and unsettling limp. Rounding out the main trio was Cherysh La Touche as the “red woman from town” Betty Lou. Her character had much less to do than the other leads, but her stage presence was impressive, captivating the audience with a glance when there were no lines to be spoken. If looks could kill eh.

Justina (Kedisha Thomas) is exiled by Betty Lou (Cherysh La Touche) and the Wedding Party in Bitter Cassava (2022) | Photo credit: Island Vision Creative

Shurnecia Walker and Oshun Trim as gossipy village girls were delightful in their comedic timing and delivery. Their scene in the middle of the play where they readied the stage for Sam and Betty’s wedding was a hilarious highlight carried through by the chemistry between the actors. Similarly, the actors playing the other young villagers kept pace. Sam’s friends and the other young ladies delivered on the humor when called for and played off of the main characters wonderfully in turn.

It is impossible to talk about the cast and not make special mention of Akinlabi Holder as village elder Pa Cephus who brought gravitas and maturity to each line with his husky voice and the hobble of his step as he leant on his cane. However, it was  the electric Zari Kerr as Papa Iban who almost stole every scene in which he appeared. His words hung heavy in the air, filled the packed ballroom, evoked the importance and power of a holy sermon whenever he spoke. His musical number in the middle of the play where he sprung to life, stamped back down and belted his song with rapture electrified the audience and it was no surprise that his applause was among the loudest after the play ended.

Zari Kerr (center) as Papa Iban in Bitter Cassava (2022) | Photo credit: Island Vision Creative

On the technical side of things, the costumes were stunning with bright and beautiful designs that felt truly authentic. Sam’s house served as the main visual focus on the stage and thanks to superb set design and construction. Well-built and rustic, the set added to the rustic authenticity of the play. … it really was a nice house to look at. The lighting and sound were used splendidly at key moments as well. Justina’s eerie haunting of the stage in the second act had such an impact thanks to the ghostly echoes of her laughter filling the room through speakers and the play of dim, red lights to transport us into the realm of spirits and douens. The only critique on the technical however, was the frequent rubbing of the mics against clothing of the actors as they moved. Almost every actor had this problem at some point, especially the ladies in the more ruffled, puffy dresses. It was a minor issue, but loud enough to be ever so slightly disruptive in the moment.

Overall, TPAC’s production of Bitter Cassava was pretty solid. The excellence of the cast and a confident hand from the director brought such life and vibrancy to the classic story that still holds relevance to today’s society.  We are at a moment, socially, where masculinity and femininity are being reappraised, reexamined, interrogated. What makes a man is plenty woman. What makes a woman is keeping a good house, raising good children. These ideas have burrowed into our collective Caribbean unconscious and taken root, bearing bitter harvests of violence and pain for both men and women. Dr. Lester Efebo Wilkinson’s story of love and revenge resonates all too closely with reality more than 40 years after it was written. The Tobago Performing Arts Company chose wisely in their decision to make their debut with this classic as it provided the perfectly provocative vehicle for their masterful craftsmanship to be on full display. They have made their splash and left those who missed it, and those who couldn’t get enough, calling for re-runs.

On April 30th Tobago Performing Arts Company announced their twin island tour for their production of Dr. Lester Efebo Wilkinson’s Bitter Cassava, and recently concluded their run at the Shaw Park Complex on May 14th. Their tour continues this weekend (May 28th and 29th) at the Naparima Bowl, San Fernando, until they take their final curtain calls at Queen’s Hall come June 3rd and 4th.

For more information visit @tobagoperformingarts on Facebook and Instagram, or call (868) 750-0692


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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.

More from Shazim Khan

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