“Carnival Medea- A Bacchanal” finds its way home

Medea and Carnival.

Although the Greek tragedy was originally penned by Euripides and first performed in 431 BC when Trinidad wasn’t even a thought, Medea might equally belong to us. The Trinidadian adaptation of the Greek classic as seen on Saturday on 21st March 2015; which featured traditional mas characters such as Baby Doll, Midnight Robber, Pierrot Grenade, batonniers and sailors as well as the African gods- Ogun, Oshun and Shango of the Orisha faith, began with Dr. Shirlene Holmes at Georgia State University in Atlanta who, in 2003, approached our very own Rhoma Spencer to do the dramaturgy for an African adaptation of the Greek tale. Dr. Holmes seemed to have the Caribbean in mind for this reinvention and so in the course of twelve years it has evolved, naming Trinidad as its place of belonging, and Rhoma as co-playwright. Another Trinidadian; Natalie Joseph-Settle of Malick Folk Performers, came on board to do the choreography and “Carnival Medea” was born. It had its first public performance at the International Collegiate Fringe Festival  in July by the GSU in Atlanta, and the cast has since been invited to perform at the ICFF in Edinburgh, Scotland which takes place in August of this year. Still, Spencer’s heart is set on revisiting it with an authentic Trinidadian cast to be performed in April 2016 and so, in collaboration with Lordstreet Theatre Company, wet our appetite with a workshop performance of “Carnival Madea” with an all Trini cast at the Big Black Box.

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The Players of GSU & University Theatre presents Carnival Medea

 Medea was “A Bacchanal” from the outset, the setting of Trinidad just helped to put it in a relatable contemporary context. In the original play, Medea was a sorceress who aided Jason in the task of retrieving the Golden Fleece. When she commits a murder, they are both exiled and seek refuge in Corinth. After bearing him two sons, he betrays her for the sake of upward mobility and becomes engaged to the princess of Corinth, Glauce. Glauce’s father, Creon exiles Medea so that she wouldn’t interfere in their wedding plans. Medea pleads for one more day, which he reluctantly allows. She plots and eventually executes the deaths of Creon and Glauce. At the end, to spite Jason, she kills her own children and then escapes to Athens to start a new life with the help of Aegeus, king of Athens. I did say it was a bacchanal from the start.

As it is workshop, I will not rate the performance. What I will offer though is my humble opinion in hopes of positively contributing to what is already a work in progress. “Carnival Medea- A Bacchanal”, sported a blended cast of both young fresh faces and familiar old ones. It began with the beating of one of the traditional African drums, ensuing a street scene that encompassed the entire cast. All the actors were uniformly dressed in black except for the additions of specific costume pieces and props to denote character. To put it in perspective, Medea (Elisha Bartels) is now Grenadian, Jason (Mark Nottingham)- a stickfighter, Creon (Curtis Gross)- the Midnight Robber “Governor- General”, the teacher (Myron Bruce)- a Pierrot Grenade, Aegeus (also Curtis Gross)- a sailor and the Chorus (Theresa Awai, Serran Clarke Annemarie Clarke and Marie Chan Durity)- all macomeres, with the African gods (Christopher Sheppard, Carlos and Delores Alexander) looming in the background probably to give the sense that they are ever present, governing Medea. The revised version paints a Trini portrait but still holds international appeal. I must say, Spencer’s ability to place this in the Caribbean cohesively should be admired.

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The Macomeres. (c) Maria Nunes Photography

The performance itself hung in the balance between being an actual performance and an unconscious attempt at reader’s theatre. Whenever treating with a classic piece whether in and of itself, or an adaptation, the way the language is handled by the actors, is key. The main characters were never fully actualized due to their struggle with the language. The actors had to rely on their scripts, perhaps due to the play being so text heavy which is common for a Greek tragedy. With them trying to get through the text, some of it was lost, which was also due to environmental factors. They needed to slow down and deliver bite size thoughts instead of chunks of sentences. I’d also recommend keeping our dialect and the pace throughout for the sake of the general audience. I felt it might’ve been better to try the performance as reader’s theatre including set and costume, with minimal but integral movement so we got a sense of the play but the language and vocal expression would’ve been focused on which was necessary in comparison to the staging of it. If we could hear it, we could feel it. There’s no subtext.

Although specific props and costumes were there to give the audience a sense of time, place and characterization, I felt they could’ve held more significance in the portrayal of the characters (e.g. the Midnight Robber’s cape). There were moments that held so much potential and could’ve been memorable with the teaming up of improvisation and the actor’s instinct but were left incomplete. For example, when Medea rushed Jason, it was a perfect moment for him to put the stick or “bois” into practice.

Certain directorial choices stood out, like the placement of the macomeres both upstage and in the audience. Their presence made things a bit more entertaining, voicing the opinions of the audience in the typical Trini picong. The street scenes with the full cast gave some shape and style to the performance using viewpoints consciously or subconsciously. One moment that stood out during one of these scenes was Medea’s eye contact with audience members, making one slightly uncomfortable- in a good way- and her vigorously motivated dancing. However, in the same way, some scenes didn’t particularly tickle my fancy. For example, the first declamatory speech with the Nurse or “Nen” (Brenda Hughes)  was drawn out and lost the storytelling element. Also, the duo scenes (Medea/Jason and Medea/Aegeus) fell flat with the poor use of space. Even Aegeus’ attempt at a Spanish accent wanes after the first line.

The fact that Medea is a Grenadian is told but we can’t tell the difference between her and a Trinidadian. The difference in history and culture should define her personality. Apart from my guessing, it was revealed very late in the act that it was the gods who were seen in the background throughout the performance. If we’re thinking Greek, we should think Deus Ex Machina… nah, just kidding. Though there may be a legitimate reason for them being there, somehow I think it took away from the dramatic element they lend to the play. And last but not least, the vibration, the spirit, the “power”, whatever you term it, was lacking. Possibly a choice not to overdo was made especially since dabbling in religious affairs can lead the performance in another direction entirely. Still, when portraying the African gods there’s just a certain infectious vibrancy that’s associated with it, proving a strength to the play.

Putting my opinionated opinions aside, all in all, it’s very much Trinidadian. The wordplay, the rhyme, the occasional slang, the performance, the people and it worked… for the most part. This play is truly rooted in who  we are; our ability to feel hatred and contempt for Jason, empathize with Medea and still be able to laugh at it all like a true true Trini. “Carnival Medea- A Bacchanal” is full of promise and I look forward to it being performed here with a local cast. Thank you Medea for finding Carnival, for finding your way to a new home.

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4 thoughts on ““Carnival Medea- A Bacchanal” finds its way home

  1. Dear Mr. Hall & Ms. Spencer, At the moment I am listening to your live interview on I95.5FM in NYC. As a Trinidadian living in NYC I try to maintain my culture as much as humanly possible. I am wondering if you have considered bringing the play to NYC; possibly at Brooklyn Academy of Music or Brooklyn College, or anywhere in the NYC area. I am not coming home for carnival in year, but I would really love to see this play.

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