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3 Jamaican Plays: A Postcolonial Anthology 1977-1987

Edited by Honor Ford-Smith,

Kingston: Paul Issa Publications, 2011. 283 pages.

Book review/ Mary Hanna

Published in the Jamaica Sunday Observer, May 1st, 2011

A sparkling text with heft, drive, and purpose, this offering by Honor Ford-Smith, scholar and poet of Sistren fame, is an important addition to every Caribbeanist’s library.  The plays that Ford-Smith and Paul Issa selected to represent the early postcolonial era in Jamaican theatre are provocative and vibrant: Masqueraders by Stafford Ashani, to whom the volume is dedicated, Whiplash by Ginger Knight, and Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine by Patricia Cumper, Honor Ford-Smith, Carol Lawes, Hertencer Lindsay, and Eugene Williams. Ford-Smith has introduced the plays in a brilliant piece that precedes them and again in shorter introductions that contextualize each of the plays. These essays add the glamour of inside information to welcome analyses of the structure and type of play that is to be presented, as the titles of the essays indicate: “Rasta, Respectability and the Challenge to Colonial Cultural Authority” (Masqueraders); “Violence, Political Disillusion and the Image of the Violent Jamaican” (Whiplash); “Playing Contrapuntally” (Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine). Written in the precise diction of academia, Ford-Smith’s careful and passionate discussion is an addition to the pleasure of the plays themselves. There is also an essay on the use of creole in the plays that is up to date and informative.

In her Introduction, Ford-Smith calls the plays “provocative, compelling and occasionally vulgar and irreverent”. She notes that they are linked together by their engagement “with the many issues of decolonization in all its complexity”.  The shape and presentation of the plays are beautifully designed: the photographs that precede each play are intriguing and inspiring. Ford-Smith writes:

This sense of stepping into a moment in which a fixed set of authorized narratives no longer worked was something that characterized life both on and off stage at the time. In 1974, in the middle of the Cold War, Prime Minister Michael Manley, an advocate of the non-aligned movement, took the state to the limit of the inherited form of liberal democracy. …The US proceeded to aid Manley’s opponents in Jamaica and an unofficial civil war began. This is the situation which Ginger Knight’s Whiplash addresses, while Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine is set in its aftermath, a period of deep disillusion that marked the onset of neoliberalism in the 1980s.

Stafford Ashani’s Masqueraders is the first play in the collection. It is about a troupe of mainly Rastafarian players in search of a place to perform their ever-changing story. Ford-Smith discusses the role of Rastafarianism in the society historically and at the time of the play’s composition. She points out the innovation in its boldly refusing naturalistic illusionism. Instead, “the play confronts, insults, teases and seduces its audience, stressing the value of improvisation as a tool for cultural and material survival”.

Ginger Knight’s Whiplash uses Rastafari language that shows “how the movement broadly influenced popular language and identity at the time”. The play is about “the fight between pro-capitalist and pro-socialist forces and how this was lived out in one family”.

It demonstrates how this civil war, never officially declared, accelerated a process of urban political clientelism that built on colonial social hierarchies. Armed supporters of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) battled the socialist government of the People’s National Party (PNP) for control of the country. The fight was most heated in Kingston, where large numbers of people were displaced in the struggle for urban space.

Ginger Knight’s depiction of the problems of Jamaican men and women in the violent seventies is clear and clever, presenting with a searing immediacy the difficulties of survival in that era. It remains relevant to this day.

Fallen Angel and the Devil Concubine explores the ways in which class, race and gender combine to determine how women of different races “live the schisms, the privilege and the pain of the postcolonial condition”.

It looks critically at how both colonization and nation are gendered by presenting a narrative of the domestic arena, and it narrates community in terms of the cost of domestic exploitation – telling the story of a dispossessed domestic worker and a rebellious impoverished creole, who, in rejecting her social class, is disowned by her family.

Fallen Angel was composed through improvisation by a group of artists and set into final script form by Patricia Cumper. This most oral of offerings has this in common with Ashani’s Masqueraders, for in Ashani’s play, the actors burn the script that is required of them by the outmoded and authoritarian powers that be in the postcolonial situation.

Information about the composing of the plays is beautifully shared in the various introductions that Ford-Smith has so graciously provided in this text. Mervyn Morris has called this “a groundbreaking collection”. It was Paul Issa’s inspiration to try and preserve some of the plays from this golden age of Jamaican theatre. Yvonne Brewster, co-founder of the Barn Theatre, says: “The three seminal plays in this brilliantly edited collection never fail to illuminate ‘the lingering aftershocks’ of plantation society in postcolonial Jamaica. “ She calls this text “essential reading”.  Ford-Smith discusses the myriad dramatic strategies that these plays evidence in their interrogation of this critical decade in Caribbean society. They reveal the deep divisions that underlie the ideas of nation that the seventies and eighties struggled with.

Honor Ford-Smith is Associate Professor of Community and Environmental Arts in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto. She was founding artistic director of the Sistren Theatre collective and tutor in drama at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in its formative years. She has published an anthology of poems, My Mother’s Last Dance, and Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican Women.

Mutabaruka: The First Poems/The Next Poems

Foreword by Paul Issa
Kingston, 2005

Since Mutabaruka: The First Poems was published in 1980, Mutabaruka has had a remarkable career as a leading proponent of than art form that come into existence at that time – dub poetry, or poetry spoken over reggae rhythms or dubs.  Since then, performing and recording poems, rather than publishing them in book form, has been Muta’s focus.

Bust just like his earlier poems, his poems of the last twenty years or so have a strength and rhythm in print – perhaps different to when experienced in performance, but just as powerful.

Mutabaruka: the Next Poems is a collection of work form the period between 1980 and 2002, performed and recorded during that time, but published here on the printed page for the first time.

As a special bonus we have reprinted Mutabaruka: The First Poems at the back of this book, giving the reader over three decades’ worth of the best of the Pet’s work.