Paul Beale is one Jamaican who employs writing to create stars in Jamaican theatre.
In ‘The Student’ recently opened at Stages, there are five stars – Tanya (played by Joanna Johnson); Melcita (played by Trudy Bell); Mr Donald Stone (played by Dennis Hall); Winston Foster (played by Geddes Vassell), and, Catherine (played by Dacota Mitchell).
This is Joanna Johnson’s first professional performance, but who can tell by her superb performance which easily manipulates the emotions of the audience, bringing them to tears then quickening laughter as she commands empathy as The Student. Along with the other four cast members she was convincing of the several Jamaican lifestyles they portrayed.
The play centres around Tanya (played by Joanna Johnson) a student in love with her Mathematics teacher Mr Donald Stone (played by Dennis Hall). One must be careful though when the irony of who gets her pregnant unfolds in the play’s end scene. Melcita (Trudy Bell) popular in TV drama series Joint Tenant is a good supporting actress and successfully uses her newly discovered talent to keep the others in the play in queue.
All along Winston Foster (played by Geddes Vassell) and wife Catherine (played by Dacota Mitchell) strive to be ideal middle class parents to both Tanya and Melcita. From the entrance of Melcita in the opening scene, the character is one strategic tool by O Beale to teach numerous lessons and thus leaves the audience wondering “ Who really is the Student?”
The Foster home with Melcita being the ‘foster child’ is the second classroom. Melcita introduces another class of Jamaican culture to the “wanna-be-uptownies” with comedic intelligence. Melcita whose character reflects the forwardness of young Jamaicans is ironically very wise in how she addresses issues confronted by individuals, adults and all. The audience itself is invited to pick up a few lessons on today’s reality in Jamaica themselves.
The only actual classroom is where Mr Donald Stone (played by Dennis Bell) teaches Tanya mathematics and ‘natural’ sciences, which on the other hand is a room for lessons of a different book.
The plot although centering around Tanya and her affairs is multifocus and the characters are presented as having multiple intelligence. Melcita leads at being smart mouthed, Tanya is smart academically and wise enough to handle her mother Catherine who constantly battles with her pennywise and pound foolish husband Winston.
There are at least three stories being told, but offering the same lessons as they are all plotted into one unfolding drama around Tanya. How Tanya’s relationship with her mother develops, while her step dad’s deteriorates and how Mr Stone comes out as a hero in the end, with Melcita although initially assumed illiterate always shines is a skilful manoeuvre by a witty playwriter.
The everyday issues dealt with in the play include teacher – student relationship, peer pressure, the advanced intellect of the achieving child, assumptions of the Rastafarian, step-father-step-daughter issues, the present in body but absent in mind parent, class prejudices, results of judging someone based on appearance and speech over expression and thinking ability, poverty, compatibility in marriage, budgeting, and challenges of ambitious Jamaicans.
The play’s scenes go by quickly, and snap the attention span of the audience away from focusing on the simplistic décor of the stage where only two rooms are presented – the Foster’s living room and the classroom. For any other relevant locations, the producers strategically plays with the imagination of the audience, and is successful especially where sound is uttered by dogs and conversation of a runaway teacher, in total darkness.
Lyrics are not lacking as the roots of Jamaicans are brought out in a comedic fashion. Almost every line uttered is proverbial or explicit in the lessons exposed, and there is no need for sarcasm, cynicism, or making fun of anyone to spur laughter from the audience. A director, writer Paul O Beale himself is in form, in not only linking the events of the student as another episode in the life of Melcita to the other plays she has been in.
Some lyrics, coupled with the animation by the actors will always be remembered. The “Natural” expression by Donald is just one such. There was therefore very little room for improvising by the cast who has been drilled into remembering every line.
To complete the ambience, sounds and lighting by Jerene Campbell did wonders. Songs like “Cry, Cry” chosen kept the play current, as effective as brief references to Buju Banton’s jail sentence by Melcita and school children on bus rides by Catherine.
It’s a play with much positive energy to erase negative feelings and more, even clearing sinuses with a dosage of unexpected actions and reactions that prompt uncontrollable laughter.
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