Thursday, 15 March 2018

CRY FREEDOM: Belly Woman captures the horrors of slavery with narrative verve and melodic strains

TESTS & TRIALS: Student actors performing a scene from the production.

Belly Woman (School of Drama Productions)
Director: Dorraine Reid
Cast: Jason Richards, Joniel Taylor, Chevan Shirley, Yohan Reynolds and Kanille Brudy
Venue: Dennis Scott Theatre, Edna Manley College

REBELLION, desperate struggle for survival, and the horrors of plantation slavery make a combustible mix in Belly Woman, a tragic musical drama driven by the insistent beat of the African drum, the jonkunnu dance and the jonkunnu song. What’s more, it’s about star-crossed lovers (Jack-in-the-Green and Belly Woman) and close-knit brothers (Jack-in-the-Green and Pitchy-Patchy) who must cope with the kind of oppression that threatens to send them to an early grave.

This daring and hard-hitting work, which opened at the School of Drama on the weekend, was penned by Omaall Wright and directed by Dorraine Reid, both outstanding past students of the institution. It’s almost Shakespearean in its ambition, with much of the dialogue delivered in rhyming couplets, while exploring such universal themes as the eternal clash between good and evil and why blood is thicker than water. You feel the people’s pain, made all the more palpable by the lashings, the torture and the brutal rapes.

So when house slave Belly Woman (Joniel Taylor) ends ups pregnant for the evil Backra (Thespy nominee Jason Richards) it rips Jack (Kanille Brudy) apart. But what can he do? His good-natured brother Pitchy-Patchy (Chevan Shirley) and wise old matriarch Mother Lungi (Yanique Bailey) are just as defenseless against the Backra, his two sidekids (played by Yohan Reynolds and Shemar Ricketts) and the corrupt two-faced Policeman (Aaron Moodie), who all seem to enjoy nothing more than chasing and hunting down runaways like dogs. Their cruelty knows no bounds. It feels a tad excessive.

Thankfully, Reid (making her directorial debut) and her competent student actors depict the harsh realities with authenticity without glorifying the brutality and the violence. Truth be told, much of the ugliness that Belly Woman captures did occur on plantations across the region, and the historical records will attest. 

Save for the intermittent musical numbers (sorrowful laments full of yearning), a play like Belly Woman easily recalls earlier works like Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, with its marked emphasis on abuse, resistance and resilience in the face of the most dire circumstances. 

Solid contributions from set design, lighting and costuming go a far way in creating the world of the play, fueled by a sad, sad chapter of world history. Wright did a laudable job crafting the story. Reid makes some smart directorial choices. 

Together, they have fashioned a solid work (testimony and memory, tragedy and melody) that spares no punches, vividly highlighting why so for many of our ancestors, who lived in constant fear of the whip, death was better than bondage. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+

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