“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together” ~ William Shakespeare.
I probably missed my first opportunity to star in a play by being born five days too late. Growing up in the church there are at least two big plays (which may be musicals) per year, one at Easter, the other the Nativity play. Being born five days after Christmas meant I missed playing the baby Jesus. Wrapped in swaddling clothes, no one would have suspected I was a girl baby! But I went on to play many different roles over the years (angels, shepherds, you name it).
When I was about six, I remember the disappointment of getting sick before a school play, which meant that I missed the rehearsals. I came back to school in time to be given a part, but it was a non-speaking part. Later on, in primary (elementary) school in Jamaica, I was part of a group of children who decided to put on a play ourselves, written by us (I don’t remember what if anything I contributed). I played the role of the parson, we kept church, and my sermon was on the verse: ‘Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days’. I didn’t get very far with the sermon, as the congregation started to heckle me: ‘But Parson, how you can expect to find the bread after you throw it away?’ ‘But Parson, the bread going to wet up, Parson!’ and other such comments. Our audience thought we were hilarious!
In high school I joined the drama society. The first play we did was a serious piece, one of Albert Camus’ plays. It may have been The State of Siege, but whatever it was I had one line ‘You’re late’, but it was thrilling. The school participated in Festival, an annual competition of many different artistic endeavors, which meant that we drove into Kingston from our country school and got to put the play on at a serious theater, named the Little Theatre, which was on Tom Redcam avenue (the backwards form of Macdermot, named after a famous Jamaican poet). There were many pleasures in participating in this, it included going to the Oxford Pharmacy, an American style store where you could find all sorts of treats never seen in our country stores. There was something magical about performing in a real theater: the lights, the smell of grease paint; the dressing up; the applause. I loved it all. Of course, there were those butterflies in the stomach, the thought of performing in front of strangers, that anticipation and dread before the play got started, but once it was over, such exhilaration!
Church plays were less exciting, more predictable. Unless you had an angel who amused the church by saying ‘Hail, thou art highly flavored’. Or the year Carolyn played the part of a child wanting to see the baby Jesus. She was to ask: ‘Where is he?’ only the first time she said it, she put the emphasis on ‘is’ and despite the best efforts of the director (aka the Sunday School teacher) to get her to put the effort on ‘Where’, it got worse and worse. Possibly because outside of rehearsal, her friends kept mocking her by asking ‘where IS he?’ over and over again.
The last play I remember being a part of was one that crushed my soul. The concept was interesting. Our drama teacher (a Scotsman who went on to be very well known in Caribbean drama circles) was very creative. No one can forget our performances of some dramatic poetry: ‘Zemi bring the rain, bring the rain, bring the rain’ (His nickname was Zemi after that). Then there was the one about Sensemaya the snake that had us chanting as if we were indeed hunting a snake with ‘eyes of glasssssss’.
Zemi’s play was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but with a twist. The play was to be produced by a white plantation owner’s wife (played reluctantly by me), and the actors would be the enslaved Africans. My best friend played Lady Macbeth, enchanting the audiences with her ‘Out, out, damn spot’. She was already famous for her elocution and enunciation, she had won prizes in poetry recitation at earlier Festivals. I would have been happy being one of the cackling witches circling the steaming cauldron: ‘By the pricking of my thumbs…’ But I was stuck playing the part of the white oppressor, someone who would own slaves. That may have been my last role.
I took this stroll down memory lane, prompted by the participation of my ten-year-old granddaughter in play on Juneteenth. She has acted in school plays before, but this was the first one that involved adults. She is a natural, considering that when she came home in Kindergarten she asked her mother what a ‘drama queen’ was, since her teacher had accused her of being one. The play was one of a series put on by the Black Theatre Fringe Festival of South Florida. She had a total of three lines, but she delivered them (of course) with aplomb. The play was introduced by one of the Founders, who let us know how difficult it was to find space to put on plays, when you are on ‘the fringe’. They had found a home in an African American church, and so I was back in the same familiar setting of my childhood to watch my granddaughter perform her three lines.
There is something about being engrossed in a play, or a performance. The cultural arts allow us to enter the world of another and thus develop empathy, which is needed more and more today. My granddaughter is at the stage where she has many interests, but I would not be unhappy if she ended up involved in the arts, a bridge to healing the divisions in our country and our world.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!