A mirror of who we still are
DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
ON SATURDAY night, I attended Iere Theatre Company’s excellent production of A Brighter Sun, a novel by Samuel Selvon which was adapted for the stage by Eintou Pearl Springer.
In Naparima Bowl, there was that magical moment when the house goes dark and the stage illuminates. The set, designed by Narad Mahabir, was one of the more detailed I’ve seen in a long time. There was an old wooden house with its familiar doors topped by spaces for air between slats of wood and, of course, a curtain blowing in the doorway.
Here, Rita and Joe, an African couple (played by Harmony Farrell and Kurtis Gross), lived next to the main characters, Tiger and Urmilla, two adolescent and recently married Indians (played by Jitindra Mewahlal and Vandana Maharaj).
Their space was represented as an ajoupa or mud hut without furniture, except for a peerha or small stool, a hammock for baby Chandra and sugar bags on the floor for sleeping. Finally, there was the Chinese grocery shop, the centre for village goods, news, gossip and drinking.
I loved the small touches; the poui tree behind the house fronts, nearly shed of its flowers (which Rita would then sweep from her yard), and the mountains in the back reminding that the play takes place in Barataria, at the foothills of the Northern Range. I’ve been researching Indian women’s historical clothing and additionally appreciated Urmilla’s clothes, and costume design by Chandra Rattan and Geneva Drepaulsingh.
Selvon brilliantly manages to make the novel amusing and serious at the same time. Tiger, married at just 16, has no idea how to be a man, but knows he must identify and behave like one. For him, manhood is smoking, drinking, planting his garden, and dominating Urmilla.
In the play, Sookdeo tells him he should "gettam" house, land and cow, and "haveam plenty boy chile" for “girl chile no good, only bring trouble on yuh head." Tiger dreams about learning to read so that he could escape the life determined for him. The entire novel is about his struggle with expectations of manhood.
Urmilla is negotiating the complexity of meeting expectations of Indian womanhood and obeying Tiger, and expressing her own ideas and ambitions. She forms a relationship with Rita and their cross-race friendship helps Urmilla through birth, motherhood and the troubles of marriage.
Indeed, when Tiger beats Urmilla, as Joe often beats Rita, and Urmilla miscarries the boy child for whom Tiger longed, it is Rita who breaks the news to Tiger that the baby was born dead. For Rita, her friendship with Urmilla is one that enables her to express her decision-making power over the contents of her house as she faces down Joe.
I wondered about what it meant to show such male domination and violence to the secondary school students who attended sold-out shows. It might have been the first scenes of domestic violence which Ziya has witnessed, and I thought of how little has changed between the novel’s setting in the 1940s and today.
Among those women in the 2018 Women’s Health Survey, seven per cent of those who had been pregnant reported physical violence in at least one pregnancy with 41 per cent of those women reporting the violence became worse during pregnancy, and 54 per cent reporting being punched or kicked in the abdomen while pregnant. The men are constantly drinking rum to bond, get through the day, and escape their realities, but as Tiger shows, alcohol escalates their violence.
The play presents a mirror showing us who we are, even now. Zi may be reading about Romeo and Juliet in school, but Tiger and Urmilla are still teenagers and it’s a local coming-of-age story that teaches about Indo-Trinidadian adolescence as well as manhood, race relations, domestic violence and women’s friendships and tribulations. Things may have changed, but the characters, and their aspirations, conflicts and hesitations, remain recognisable.
Set during the Second World War, the novel is one of the few that describes the impact of an American presence on village life, including how loss of his land broke Sookdeo, a drunkard whose gardens produced bountifully. David Sammy nailed the role, showing the character almost as a parody, but also with hidden pride and secret knowledge.
It’s that combination of a time gone and how much has stayed constant that makes the play, staged to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Selvon’s birth on May 20, 2023, so important at this time. It deserves national support for additional runs in theatres at UWI and in Port-of-Spain.
Diary of a mothering worker
"A mirror of who we still are"