“Don’t afraid to be different. Conformity is practically a death sentence to an artist. In other words: if you’re doing what everyone else has done, you don’t give yourself the chance to do what nobody but you can do.” – Z.Z. Packer: African-American author, 2003.
By a series of coincidences, several of the young artists in both the theatre and the visual art arena are investigating the life of black youth caught in the culture of the block. Like their subjects, they have defied the restrictions that conformity imposes and have struck out to explore what it feels to be the marginalized, and the misunderstood. Both end products present a curious tale, bitter in parts, sad in others but to a large degree, true to the vision that they have of the block as a social space created by and for black males existing on the margins of Barbadian society.
Glenville Lovell, who has several important productions of his plays in Barbados, and was recently awarded the Earl Warner Trust Barbados Lifetime Achievement Award, begins his conversation with a muted interpretation of the block using seven characters to tell what is an artistic quest sullied by life circumstances spanning intrigue, sex, dislike for class and what it entails, violence, poverty, and the defiance of the system that has confined them to the ghetto. [Oh how I hate that word!] I say muted because the playwright never goes the whole way in his expose. We never get the sense in their portrayal that these characters are truly products of this environment. The block for them is a stopping off place, never a kingdom that they own, control, and inhabit. As such their desperation about life, a sense of their cruelty, the grittiness that characterizes such existence is missing.
In contrast, Ronald Williams a studio artist and graduate of the BFA program at Barbados Community College [BCC], who has several important exhibitions to his credit, is strident in his imagining of life on the block making bold statements about the chosen personas who inhabit the block. Williams creates seven commentaries on block life using digital images in collage, but for this review, I will address only four. In both cases, the artists assume the stance of the outsider–Lovell as the elder observer intent on salvaging some sense of community, while Williams exposes the underlying angst of young men caught in the society’s materialistic outlook.
Ronald Williams artist Glammuh series
The block for Lovell is the place of negotiation especially in modern times when opportunities for social advancement seem scarce. It is also a reminder of the brutality of the slave past where those on the auction block have no agency, no say in the outcome except to comply or rebel at the peril of death. Goose, the character who precipitates the events in the play, has crossed the social barrier by consorting with the wife of a local judge and he pays the price for his defiance. Williams’ series Glammuh, is dangerously non-conformist in its view that the block is the place of auction. There is no block as a family unit, alternative home. Underneath the exterior glamour or “glammuh” as he calls it, there is an ugly side that suggests all have been bought and sold. Williams deconstructs several myths starting by revealing that our familiar Caribbean island, described as Paradise Isle is not a place of beauty. Skeletons of all sorts abound and the paths taken inevitably cause death and destruction. The stylized palm trees are the leaves of the marijuana plant embellished in parts with fragments of Barbados five-dollar notes–the common currency in local marijuana sales–imposed on a bloodied sun. Each revealed semi-automatic weapon represents a body, a death that results from the forbidden trade in drugs for guns and the bloody sun casts a lengthening dark shadow across the landscape colored in gold to replicate the lucre of the trade. For Williams, the island and its attendant blocks represent a place of death.
Ronald Williams Paradise Isle. Glammuh series
Lovell’s one-act play starts with the microcosm of the block, which Matthew Squires depicts as an open area ringed by palings, with rough and tumble furniture made from pallets, the detritus of the yard evident in discarded tyres, bottles, dilapidated furniture and the obligatory graffiti. This realist representation captures the environment well. Squires borrows from the Greek tradition of the periaktoi with a pivoting series of flats upstage that become the walls of the club when the scene changes except for the hospital scene where it is most needed. This vista’s crudeness is seemingly a mirror of the roughness of the people in it and while the play seems to offer an escape of sorts through communitas and the love of poetry, inevitably the pressure of outside forces gathers to destroy any sense of progress.
Williams also addresses these circumstances in Shoe Game#1. The absence of a torso can be interpreted in two ways: as the apparent triumph of the male inhabitants of the block over adversity and material deprivation in this refusal to identify facially this success, and as the ability to surmount the odds through a display of the trappings that now define them–the popular timberland boots in ochre, with loosened laces, the gaudy watch, the taboo camouflage pants, the trunk bearing a skull in a Louis Vuitton covering to suggest omniscient death, and the superior brand of rum pouring so many red dice in an effervescent sparkle to suggest not only that the subject has to overcome many odds to achieve this sense of entitlement, but that the stiffened hand on the bottle neck is holding a penis in an assertion of the subject’s triumphant maleness. The artist foregoes faces or camouflages them in the whole series as if they are not needed to identify the archetypes in this new theatre of life. We know them all from their poses, their desire to be noticed, from their curious affront to the system that neglects them.
Ronald Williams Shoe Game #1. Glammuh series
Where Williams expresses what seems like disdain for the cheapening of human existence that the block represents, On The Block takes a different perspective, through the costuming, the sound design, lighting, and the staging of the play. There is no bling signifying the ostentation of these dwellers. They are still open to change and redemption as Lovell shows by the play’s end. Most seem to be living at home and just pass through for the occasional lime, to smoke, drink, and converse with and learn from Goose when he was alive. The dress of the opening reflects some of Williams’ ideas about the social status the block members have achieved but these trappings are not sustained. The use of the red suggests rebellion and bravado, on one hand, but on the other, alludes to the spectre of HIV/AIDS infection which has touched this community through Goose. This contrasts vividly with the later choices where the dress is stripped down to reflect the homeliness of the people via their apparel.
Opening scene On The Block from left Black Eye (Renesha Lawrence), Skins (Serge Phillips), Trip (Kiara Smith), Tek Nine (Mikhail Prescod)
Skins (Serge Phillips) and Black Eye (Renesha Lawrence) at the Poetry slam. A scene from On The Block
On The Block Black Eye (Lawrence) and Trip (Smith) in a lively scene. Note the attire.
The lighting carries a murkiness for the scenes where Goose loses his life and Boyland meets the policeman Edwards after midnight. Generally, there is little brightness except for the ending and these choices by the lighting designer Shad Stuart convey well that this block carries a sense of foreboding.
As the play progresses we see the playwright’s intention: to offer a balm, an outlet for the out-of-sorts youths shocked by Goose’s sudden death and left destitute from his passing. This is through their reliance on poetry to express their deep feelings about their lives. However, the power of the poetry is never explored especially at the end where the block community engages in a slam to commemorate Goose’s passing. The director chooses to arrange his players in a semi-circle in recitative mode. There is no experimentation with the energy such slams produce, no attempt to give the characters a distinctive poetic voice and no involvement of the audience on either of the nights I attended. Space which became limited by the many set pieces seriously curtailed meaningful movement by the players and the playwright’s vision of the space as an auction block never materializes no doubt because there is no obvious governing concept for the play. In several instances, the movement arrived at failed to communicate well motivation or intention.
Ronald Williams Up 2 De Time. Glammuh series
In comparison, Williams’ commentary is assertive, defiant and commanding of our attention. We are familiar with the popularity of the tattooed body which becomes a canvas for a variety of social statements or personal sentiments. The block is one place we will find this three-dimensional form where the wearer is constantly adding to the pictures being created as a form of resistance to the conforming body and its conventions. In Up 2 De Time the upper torso bears a watch face for a head with a suspended cap with its brand name logo. While the body is decked with the scarves associated with the gang world, the replacement of the face with a flashy timepiece comment on the temporal nature of the persona who in attaining his success forfeits his life. This depiction confirms one of the realities of block life, not explored in the play.
Ronald Williams Guns X Roses. Glammuh series
The Guns X Roses collage is even more direct particularly in its studied pose, its seeming frivolity with ornate jacket design and the rose sprouting from the gun muzzle. Underneath, however, is a comment on the futility of this lifestyle. The pistol-packing persona harks back to the bravado of the outlaw of the American Western where guns give ultimate power. The placement of the rose suggests the silliness of the circus clown who shoots scarves and a myriad of non-threatening objects during his routine, but an underlying statement is that guns and warfare can be discarded for things of beauty like roses. In an unusual choice, the figure carries a face partially masked by a scarf but whose eyes are painted to resemble mysterious and penetrative highly decorated orbs that spill over to the neck, head, and partially revealed body, and fracture into petals with an ornate gold hue on the jacket. The artist finishes his portrait of the block dandy with six pheasant feathers as a form of rakish crown indicating that the subject is at the same time, hunter and trophy combined. These two examples from Williams’ work express using the vanitas style the futility of life on the block. There is only a temporary freedom to be frittered away in clothes and the trappings of a pseudo-successful life. The outcomes in the play and the four collages are the same: loss and anguish; regret and the inevitable future of neglect, pain, and death.
On The Block gives us similarly Boyland [Jonathan Howard] who is linked to Goose’s tragic end since he sees the whole murder unfold. The introduction of two complicating factors–the newspaper columnist, Bill Harrison, seeking the reasons for the murder, played quite well by Junior Weathered and the exploitative policeman, Edwards–who carries a grudge–handled ably by Simon Alleyne in both casts, place the community on the block at risk of disintegration. Trip [Kiara Smith] is the first to fall prey to the policeman’s enticements. Smith is fairly distinctive in her characterization and we feel sorry for her when she faces expulsion by her block peers. Boyland and his girlfriend Black Eye [Renesha Lawrence] who must take the money from both the policemen and the columnist in order to allow for his escape from a vengeful judge, also find themselves facing life-altering changes. The descent into madness shown by Tek Nine[Mikhail Prescod] symbolizes the anomie of the block.
I question the freedom with which the policemen and the columnist appear on the block as well as Trip who is regarded as a snitch. This seems an incredible occurrence given the real-life rules applied by those who hold moral authority on the block. The reporter’s revelation that he is gay is another aspect of the play that needs to be reviewed given the block’s male stance in real life. These issues and their solutions should be re-imagined by Lovell himself.
Since the director becomes a painter of sorts using bodies and all the theatrical elements at his disposal, some comment is necessary on the directing efforts of Na La whose style here contradicts what was his best conceptual work so far, Mouth Open Story Jump Out. Unbelievable is the director’s imposition of bodies who inhabit the block but have no function. They neither carry news nor relate in any way to the principals while in the same space. They are not a feature of the script. This directorial choice takes away focus from the important action in the foreground and weakens the story being played out. In addition, no attempt is made to suggest through the staging the concept of the auction block which is at the heart of the playwright’s work. The use of females to play male parts also complicates what the playwright intended as his message. The choices for the transitions where the sound and lighting pick up the fast forward motion of a film may offer some glitz but again it does not add anything to the work. These choices suggest the director is not happy with a realistic mode and feels obligated to make it what it is not. A great deal of attention was needed for the pace of the play for both casts which was slow and never built to any climactic moment. Additionally, greater vocal variety was needed from the players, something the director should not overlook. The most comfortable actors on stage were Howard, Smith, Weathered, Alleyne, and Serge Phillips from the first cast and Maia Best, Danico Waterman, and Brandon Gaskin from the second.
Nonetheless, what helps this play is the boldness of the writing. Lovell as a post-modernist poet uses all the language of the street. What appears shocking at first becomes less so as the play develops. By the time we reach the finale, we can see why the vulgar language is a language of inclusion and part of the liberating influence of the block. There are touches of humor and there are the serious moments intertwined. Lovell takes on the challenge to represent an aspect of Barbadian life that is being scrutinized on all fronts. This in itself is a daring action. He shows that the language of the gun is all too real and that not all of those on the block are hardened in their vices. The block would seem to represent for him a microcosm of the larger world where youth must find their place regardless of their circumstances. There is a solution in the entrepreneurial impulse characterized by Trip but often short-circuited by poverty and the lack of a supportive family. Then there is the option to write about one’s life as play or poem and use that to understand self. There will always be a form of corrupt justice to overthrow and there will always be the need to know yourself fully.
The discussion that followed the Friday performances, was an interesting development no doubt intended for the audience to give its responses to what is a very new play. The discussion, led by radio talk show host and youth activist Corey Layne on the final Friday, was robust and prompted much talk about what the block represents for the youth, and the continuing generation gap. The actors who spoke are knowledgeable about the situation the play mirrors as are the patrons who added to the discourse.
The future success of this play will lie in its revision to accommodate the solutions to the problematic actions that belie the real circumstances of the block. Also more innovative directing should help. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest, I give it 6 for its language, set design, lighting, and its decision to engage the play-going community through discussion.
By the way, I think I prefer the treatment of the social issue evident in Williams’ work. His is a no-holds-barred expression of his revulsion at what our society has become.
On The Block by Glenville Lovell
Venue: Daphne Joseph Hackett Theatre, Queen’s Park, Bridgetown
Show dates: April 26-28, May 3-5, 2018
This article originally appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on May 26, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.