Monday, 27 February 2012
DRAMA QUEENS: Can Jamaica’s women playwrights get some power and respect?
Thanks to the recent (and continued) success of Dahlia Harris, Jamaican women playwrights seem to be fortifying their collective voice in the theatre industry. Earning acclaim from critics and theatregoers alike, Harris’ trifecta of stage hits – Judgement, God’s Way and Back A Yaad – has inadvertently reignited the debate over whether our female writers measure up to their male counterparts when it comes to pulling the ubiquitous mix of money, power and respect in their favour.
Long before Harris, there was Barbara Gloudon (who still pens the book and lyrics for the annual LTM pantomime), as well as Carol Lawes and Honor Ford-Smith, who have collaborated on writing projects. In the contemporary setup, in addition to Harris, the likes of Amba Chevannes, Angie Binns and rising star Teneile Warrren are repping for the women. Yet male playwrights continue to outnumber and outmuscle them. So while our actresses continue to make strides centrestage with consistently brilliant performances, when it comes to scripts, Jamaican women still haven’t fully arrived.
“I think the major challenge is getting the work mounted. That's where the male dominance is prevalent,” Harris explains. “A lot of female writers interact with me, and you would be amazed at the number of scripts being generated and the level of frustration because less than a handful actually make it to the stage. This also affects what I call the 'balance of representation', how we work towards representing people, how they are and not what we perceive them to be. The female experience, and thus perspective, will always be different from our male counterparts’. Consciously or not, the female writer brings this to her work.”
It’s a point that in a way underscores Angie Binns’ own experiences. “At the time that I ventured into theatre, in 2009, there were very few women writing and this actually proved to be an advantage rather than a hindrance," says Binns. "Why? Because in life, the demand for something different will always arise, regardless of the efforts to stifle it and hold on to the designated standard.“
And while she readily admits that women playwrights still have far to go, Binns acknowledges that audience feedback is supremely important. “The most support I received was from the general public who attended my shows. Their response was very gratifying. And don’t be fooled either, they come with high expectations so I can’t give them any old willy-nilly thing. The vast majority of theatre lovers are dying to see what women are writing, having been fed a more than steady diet of testosterone-soaked productions over the years,” argues Binns, citing a fond memory from the 2010 staging of her superb family drama Second Chance.
“A gentleman approached me after a show, took my hand and remarked ‘Yuh know mi cry fi yuh show. And mi nuh cry yuh nuh. Lady, yuh muss keep writing, yuh hear. It good.’ Or something like that. But it made a huge impact on me.”
For the playwright, the encounter was also a lesson in the power of good writing to touch lives and even transform. “Theatre reaches and touches people in a real way, so we as writers have a responsibility to write our asses off the best we can. So as I continue to learn this tough business and continue to garner the necessary writing skills essential to be successful, I will keep positive and enjoy the ride as much as possible.”
Meanwhile, as she prepares to unleash yet another stage production later this year, Harris (who also wears the hats of producer and occasional director) says she willingly accepts the challenge of bringing diversity to the stage, in spite of the hurdles.
“In this market, producers are hard-pressed to abandon established writing/directing partnerships for newer or even non-commercial efforts, and thus my drive to mount the work on my own,” she emphasizes. “The criticisms within the industry have far outweighed the support and within that small group the men outnumber the women. I think that's the other major challenge; as female writers struggle to establish a greater voice, we have to work beyond [everything that tries] to silence us.”