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Wednesday 29th May 2019

By Joanne C. Hillhouse
This edition sponsored by the Burt Award winning teen/young adult novel Musical Youth.

It’s been a while since I read Derek Walcott’s ‘Ti-Jean and His Brothers’ – long enough that I remember only the broad strokes: that it’s a parable in which three sons representing three different traits are tested by some version of the devil, and the youngest and most creative, intuitive, and adaptable wins; that there is a ‘baby’ devil who, gifted life at the end, says the lines “I am born, I shall die! I am born, I shall die!” in a way that summed up existence in all its joy and heartbreak. Did I get that right?

Zahra Airall’s Honey Bee Theatre provided a refresher when they took on the iconic play. Enough cannot be said about Zahra and her contribution to modern Antiguan and Barbudan theatre – from co-producing and co-directing local stagings of Eve Ensler’s ‘Vagina Monologues’ and its local adaptation ‘When a Woman Moans’ which brought domestic concerns and voices to the fore (as Women of Antigua); to revivals of classic Antiguan and Barbudan theatre such as Harambee’s ‘Tangled Web’ (under her Sugar Apple Theatre banner); to working with her students to bring to life for them stories written for the stage (award winning original plays for the local and regional drama festivals, and other productions whether as Zee’s Youth Theatre with its straightforward take on classroom politics in ‘School Bag’ or Honey Bee Theatre – the latter having toured as well, providing even more exposure for her young thespians – with ‘The Long Walk’, which I gave a glowing review earlier this year).

That said, this is a somewhat mixed review.

I am mindful that this is a secondary school presentation (with teen performers) of a play that’s considered a classic by a master of the stage, and a Nobel Prize winning poet. My goal here is not to strip any bit of the joy and sense of accomplishment that those in the production have (I think that joy and sense of accomplishment is well earned, and part of what I enjoyed about the presentation was the clear discipline and enthusiasm, which Zahra, a teacher, has managed to inspire in them as she works to make literature come alive for them) and, from where I sat, it was well-received by the audience (literature coming alive for us too). Enthusiasm can go a long way toward closing the experience gap and as it is a production made up of secondary school students, there will be an experience gap.

‘Ti-Jean and His Brothers’ can be described as allegorical fantasy – talking animals, questing humans, a (seductive) devil who takes several forms, a parabolic sense of purpose. The production hit the plot beats but the tone was uneven – as was (at times) the sound balance between the voices and live (pan and drumming) music.

Other issues: rough start – it took me a while to get acclimatized to the world of the play; the voice work – Walcott and some of the text being St. Lucian, the delivery sometimes went in and out of that country’s accent, but also there could have been better clarity and projection (especially important in a play by one of the Caribbean’s best poets where each line has lyrical weight but also because it’s so vital to the world-building); the choice to give the devil (or one of his faces) a Trump head (because, for me, the less seen of him the better) though I understand the impulse; and pacing. Re pacing – the play overall felt oddly too measured in the beginning, but, with the third brother, it came alive (and I a lot more engaged).I’m chalking some of the setting and costume (repetition of some pieces from earlier productions – which is done but was noticeable) to budgetary reasons. The set was laid out to transition through character, costume (in the case of the devil who makes several on stage changes), and location shifts seamlessly – results are mixed re those transitions, but it gets easier to go with it once the world of the play settles in the mind. With some set issues being initially distracting, that takes some time. How much time is subjective. The audience was very responsive from the beginning – laughing in the right places and so on, and appreciating the little tweaks that made the play, fantasy though it is, a little more Antiguan-specific in feel.

Overall, critiques notwithstanding, it was a good effort. The physical work by the animal characters (narrators of and actors in the play, with their dubious loyalties) alone is worthy of applause – the leaping and squatting of the terrestrial animals and swamp creatures especially.

Well done. Each of the brothers inhabited his trait well – the oldest with his solid physicality (though his handling of this prop did make me uneasy at times), the fidgetiness of the brainy brother, and the loose sprightliness of the youngest brother (the strongest of the three). Because they were all – including the longsuffering mother – more characteristic than character, their deaths (there were at least three deaths and one birth in the play) didn’t resonate in any emotionally significant way (for me) but the symbolic resonance (echoes of the parables of the Bible) was there. The devil was a stand out in each of his at least three incarnations though my favourite was perhaps the loose-limbed arrogance of the plantation owner/massa/backra persona, who convincingly portrays his rising irritation as the youngest brother tests his patience and temper and in time gets the best of him. Good rhythm between these two combatants (Ti-Jean and the Devil).

The Bolum character was appropriately nightmarish – the actor moving in sinuous ways; though absent for so much of the play that the symbolic and practical significance of it being gifted life in the end is weaker than it might otherwise be. A very effective part of the staging was the spectacle – notably when the demons bathed in red light for dramatic effect and chanting would come in and wreak havoc; creating the necessary noise and distraction in order to complete their bloody work or effect certain costume changes while keeping the play moving and building atmosphere. They used up the whole space – the demons walking amongst the audience with wild abandon. The use of humour (in the person a certain goat especially) was also effective.

I do hope students studying Ti-Jean and his Brothers came out to one of the stagings by Honey Bee Theatre because there is something that clicks in your brain when a play you’ve been reading or studying is suddenly acted out in front of you.

This sponsored post is part of the online edition of the culture-and-arts-focused CREATIVE SPACE series which gives local businesses an opportunity to boost their brand while boosting local art and culture. The original is posted at Jhohadli – blog of author/creative writer and journalist Joanne C. Hillhouse.

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