The National Theatre Arts Company, with director Belinda Barnes, faced a monumental challenge in staging Moon on a Rainbow Shawl for Carifesta.
The company’s production of the 1957 play by Trinidadian actor/writer Errol John, staged at the Lord Kitchener Auditorium in NAPA on August 17, had to convey the many layers and fine nuances of one of the most-produced and best-acclaimed plays ever to emerge from the Caribbean.
It also had to contend with an audience that laughed at everything – even the love scenes.
But although the audience often failed to rise to the creative level of a play with serious, timeless messages, this didn’t appear to faze the actors.
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is a haunting story of desire. Ephraim, a tramcar driver, and his neighbours in a barrack yard in East Dry River, Port of Spain, all have hopes and dreams.
Sophia wants her daughter Esther to get an education. Esther wants to be able to use her scholarship.
Esther’s father, Charlie wants the respect he once had as a cricketer.
Rosa, an orphan, wants love, and Ephraim wants to escape society’s rigid roles.
Somehow, John condensed the struggles of TT, caught between World War II and independence, into four households in one barrack yard, in the same powerful way that Herman Melville summed up the issues of the world on the whaling ship the Pequod in Moby-Dick.
The set, designed by Greer Jones-Woodham and built by Raymer Diaz, was a work of art. Details, which included the faded paint of the tenement houses, the leaves on the galvanized iron roof, the electric poles and wires – even a standpipe – recreated a setting that rooted the characters in the place that defined them. A giant moon served as a beacon of light in the darkness.
The set evoked both the poverty and the closeness of a barrack yard, where most activities take place outside. Only Ephraim’s room gave the audience a glimpse of the interior.
Actors mostly exited up the steps, which physically and symbolically separated the homes of Rosa and the Adamses, who struggle to fit into society, from those of Mavis and Ephraim, who seek their own self-interest.
Barnes captured the energy of the barrack yard with the constant movement of peripheral characters. A pan-round-the-neck side and Ketch the calypsonian, played by Krisson Joseph, wove their way through the play.
Joseph’s incredible voice delivered telling calypsoes that captured the characters’ struggles. Joseph was the only character who escaped the facetious laughter of the audience.
The National Steel Symphony Orchestra and National Philharmonic Orchestra further elevated the professional feel of this production with their background music.
The proof of good directing often lies in the effectiveness of evoking complex personalities in minor characters. Maurice Brash made his mark as the lecherous landlord Old Mack, who pretends to care for Rosa.
Arnold Goindhan, as Prince, conjured up a compelling minor character when he asked Mavis, the prostitute, to marry him. Goindhan’s ability to convey humour and conviction with a well-controlled, completely natural voice was mesmerising. Prince moved seamlessly between his attempt to reform Mavis to being controlled by her sexual shenanigans.
Shivonne Church-Isaacs, as Mavis, the prostitute, offered unashamed comic relief. Mavis is a stock character who never changes. She served as a character foil for everyone in the yard. Church-Isaacs played her role with confidence, never deviating from Mavis’s simple purpose: to have fun in spite of the poverty that surrounds her.
Marvin Dowridge as Charlie and Patti-Anne Ali, as his wife Sophia, were equally compelling. Dowridge had the difficult task of creating sympathy for Charlie, whose failure as a cricketer now defines his life. Dowridge captured the complexity of Charlie, often conveying two emotions simultaneously: Charlie’s drunken romps were both funny and pitiful.
Ali portrayed the many feelings of Sophia as she tried to hold her family and community together, and accomplished this with convincing emotion.
Playing the child Esther, a scholarship winner, who represents the residents’ hope for the future, Briege Wilson had to convey Esther’s intelligence and her innocence. She needed to trust her solid acting skills a bit more and avoid using a shrill voice to remind the audience she was playing a child.
The ultimate success of this play hinged on the relationship of Ephraim (Nicholas Subero) and Rosa (Syntyche Bishop). Bishop brought out the innocence that defined Rosa and her desperate need to define love.
Additional performances would have given room for character development. Subero displayed measurable growth as Ephraim grappled with his decision to migrate to England. Sometimes, though, I did feel he was acting rather than owning the part of Ephraim. Again, more performances would have benefited Subero.
All in all, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl delivered a memorable experience in spite of the embarrassing audience, which clung to the humour and failed to acknowledge the serious, contemplative parts of a play which still raises important questions about love, family, self-fulfilment and migration. It is a production that demands a repeat performance.