It is the age-old dispute that any coming-of-age Trinbagonian has faced; the Church or Carnival. Can he who is baptized in Christ coexist with the bacchanal that is the greatest show on Earth? Does the allure of Carnival recede once you’ve rooted your identity in Christ? How can one consider themselves religious while partaking in the revelry of the Carnival season? For any person wading through these supposedly conflicting experiences, or for any Trinbagonian who has experienced the duality of religion and festivity during Trinidad and Tobago’s most spirited season, Carnival Carol (a brand new play by Daniel Baptiste) seeks to provide some answers.
Set in a modern day Christian household, Carnival Carol follows Cecil Basar (Rashaad Aaron), a model God-fearing son, whose curiosity with the season’s festivities threaten to get the better of him. His parents Charlotte and Luke Basar (Mackenzie Poulido and Robert Inniss) have groomed him to be an upstanding member of their parish; themselves professed to be upstanding parishioners. When the never seen, but always spoken about Prophet Elijah personally invites him to speak as youth leader at the church, it seems all the hard work that Cecil and his parents have put in is coming to fruition. The only problem? Cecil has never truly experienced anything outside of his religious upbringing, and the pull of Carnival has him conflicted. Enter his best friend Daniella (Mikayla Almondoz), a once staunch church-goer who has left the pews and postures of the congregation for the excitement of the world outside. She, along with the mystery woman-in-red Liberty (Harmony Farrell) offer Cecil a taste of the joys of the Carnival season.
In and of itself, the script, from the beginning and throughout, seems to be reliant on tropes. Many of what the characters say we’ve all heard before. A lot of the dialogue feels lifted from (not to be too literal to the contents of the play) church camps, or mass on Sunday, and while this may be the intent of conveying the he play’s central theme of religion vs secularism, and heavy handedness of Christian righteousness around this time, the play seems afraid to venture too far outside of what we already know.
There are the parents who are strict in their adherence to the gospel, being faithful to the church’s teachings and not listening to secular music, but whose past exploits betray their apparent piousness. There is the best friend who lures the good church boy to the other side with fetes, wining, and alcohol. But even within the confines of these tropes, the cast does an incredible job of bringing a humanity to the characters on stage. Rashaad Aaron and Mikayla Almondoz bring an easiness to the friendship between Cecil and Daniella, crafting hilarious back and forth that feels just as true as a long time friend-from-small relationship. They both handle the funny and inquisitive moments well when traditional ideals clash with more contemporary notions. Poulido and Innis give us strong performances of the overbearing mother and father that may want to learn the lessons of their own childhood when extending grace to their son.
Make no mistake; Carnival Carol does take aim at how religion casts blanket statements over anything secular. It just doesn’t push too far past the boundaries of comfort even for a play that wants to dispel common misconceptions. If dulcet melodies of calypso drift from Cecil’s room we can expect stern admonition from his parents. There is bound to be talk of “the righteous inheriting the earth” in the face of a now fallen-from grace Daniella refusing to return to church. The set up is there, but the resolution isn’t as inspiring as you hope.
The one subversion of these allegories comes in the form of Liberty who at first appears as the scarlet seductress but is revealed to be the spirit of Carnival. Harmony Farrell leads you into the beginning of play as a seeming enchantress, later showing off her versatility when she returns to lead Cecil on a journey, not only through his parents’ past, but to the historical beginnings of Carnival itself. Farrell captivates as the all-knowing mentor too fed up with Cecil’s naivete, but who nurtures him to the revelation of the “true meaning of Carnival”.
It is here that Carnival Carol borrows from yuletide counterpart A Christmas Carol. But whereas Ebenezer Scrooge experiences a redemption arc after being taken on a journey through his past, present, and future as a warning of the sad life he’s fated to live if he does not leave his selfish and heartless ways behind him, Cecil on the other hand returns from his odyssey through time, seemingly marginally changed, with nothing more than Carnival’s history.
This was another instance where the script embarks on an inquisitive journey but stops short of giving us a fully fleshed out universe that endears the audience to the deeper roots of our unique celebration. Yes we see Cecil’s parents meeting at a fete and doing their hot gyul and saga boy ting. Yes we see the enslaved Africans of the past being oppressed by and the revolting against their enslavers, but the endeavour is so short that we’re whiplashed back to the present before ever truly knowing who these people were. Carnival Carol had the true potential to draw us into the happenings of the past instead of what felt like vignettes of a time gone; memories that we are desperately trying to recapture; a textbook telling of our history.
Even with all of this, however, Carnival Carol must be commended for its bravery in stepping outside conventional storytelling. It was a fusion of stage and screen, where wonderfully done filmic aspects (with cinematography by Aaron Caruth) gave context to the events that weren’t created on stage. The set was beautifully crafted, albeit a bit clustered. If Coco Chanel were in the audience she’d say that one (or a few) pieces of the set could have been left behind. There were crosses upon crosses, and whether it was supposed to convey the overbearing nature of the household dogma it ended up corralling the actors into their physical spaces. Music direction and underscoring by Dike Samai added a lovely dimension to the storytelling. He gets a chance to showcase his expertise in composition and film scoring throughout the production. Synthyche Bishop’s directing gave the actors permission to play with the full dimensions of the set, not being stuck on the front-facing action many plays can fall trap to.
At the end it was truly refreshing to see a new generation of theatre makers and storytellers taking risks within their craft. Each step made by the production team was a step in the right direction. And while some of it still relied on conventions and familiarity, with a little more nurturing and a little more trust in its own voice, Carnival Carol has the potential to be spectacular.
Carnival Carol was staged February 8th - 9th, 2023 at Naparima Bowl. This author attended the the closing performance on the evening of February 9th .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Isaiah is a graduate of The American Musical and Dramatic Academy and The New School where he holds an Bachelor’s Degree in Musical Theatre and a minor in Screenwriting. He’s performed extensively both locally and internationally. Credits include; Doubles with Slight Pepper (dir. Ian Harinarine); Back to Freeport (dir. Jian Hennings); The Little Mermaid, West Side Story (Fireside Dinner Theatre); Julius Caesar (dir. Michaelian Taylor); Chicago (Potsdam Music Theatre)