Review – Monkey Mountain’s ‘Unbelievable’ Performance of Ti-Jean and His Brothers! No Really, I’m still in disbelief…

Crick Crack, Monkey break he back, for a piece a pomerac… In a Trinidad Guardian article on 21 June, 1970 Derek Walcott described Ti-Jean and His Brothers as his most ‘West Indian’ play. Furthermore, he called this play “the least forced, most spontaneous and least laboured [of his plays thus far] both in rhythm and concept”.  However, if you attended Monkey Mountain‘s first performance of Ti-Jean on Thursday 28th May 2015 , you would disagree almost entirely. Honestly, it was the worst performance I have seen in quite some time….It felt and looked like the most amateur of student productions, which is quite surprising since the cast consisted of a significant number of very skilled actors/ performers like Muhammad Muwakil, Tishanna Williams; Kurtis Gross just to name a few. In retrospect it was the inefficiency of the technical aspects of the production that made the performance difficult to enjoy. (Hopefully they have improved!)

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Ti-Jean meets the animals | Photo Credit: Eric Barry

 


ABOUT THE PLAY: 

Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott explores the power of good versus evil, poor versus wealthy and the search for what defines humanness. This folk tale—told by the animals of the rainforest through dialogue, dance and song—tells the tale of a poor widowed mother, her three sons, and their bargain with the devil.

(Henry Muttoo)

In relation to structure Walcott intentionally ‘bastardized’ greek drama by fusing it with Caribbean storytelling and other indigenous rituals. Furthermore, he claimed to be following in Aeschylus‘ footsteps, he goes as far as making this proclamation within the play itself:

FROG: Greek-croak, Greek-croak.

CRICKET: Greek-croak, Greek-croak.

FROG: (sneezing) Aeschylus me!

Walcott uses the story of the mother and son and their participation in a game of “Who vex loss” with the Devil to examine the Caribbean’s search for it’s place among the global community of sovereign states. In the book Plays for Today, Errol Hill cites John Simmons’ analysis of the play: “the play exists on several levels…” as a simple folk tale, a metaphysical verse play and a relevant black parable inciting to anti-white revolution. Hill also cites Eric Roach’s view that the three brothers are symbolic of the movement of generations through West Indian History. In essence the play is noted as a representation of the struggle against colonialism with the use of Greek and Caribbean theatrical/ritual/folk forms.


With the ticket prices for this production, you’re set up to expect a flawless show. As a theatre goer, when you see ticket prices over $150.00TT, you expect a lot especially when the evening is started with complimentary wine and beautiful house music that really helped to put you in the mood for something great. In the theatre, the set was colourful and the use of gobos for trees on the side of the walls set the mood for a magical experience, so you ‘suspend your disbelief’… and then it began…

The animals appeared with interesting and beautifully coloured costumes and you tell yourself, “brace yourself for a once in a lifetime experience”… however, after a few minutes you began to think that you never want to experience this again. Mouth Open, Story Jump Out! The first half of the performance was poor and  the experience didn’t improve by the second! The music overpowered the dialogue and, even when there was no music and the dialogue was heard, you almost never understood what was said. The only characters whose dialogue were clear and distinguishable were Ti-Jean (Muhammed Muwakil) and Gros-Jean (Kurtis Gross). It was obvious that the cast never worked with the set before since they seemed to be fighting each other for what little space was left after the scaffolding for the orchestra and flats were placed on-stage, the lighting cues were slow and mistimed at times often leaving stagehands with no other choice but to awkwardly walk on and off a brightly lit stage to change set while there were blackouts for them to do these actions early on in the performance. Additionally, some of the dances seemed forced unto the play. 

The best things about the production were the last song and dance before the curtain call and Danielle Lewis’ almost solo curtain call. This performance looked like a dress rehearsal rather than an actual performance.


THE ACTING: It is important to note that everyone except Muwakil and Gross had problems with enunciation, therefore for most of the play the audience was left wondering what was actually being said. My main critique is that there was a lack of clarity in relation to the dialogue, and I am not quite sure whether it was due to enunciation or technical issues.

Asha Sheppard: Frog

Sheppard’s characterization was good but I just wish that I actually heard her dialogue. I was only aware of what was being said, because I am relatively familiar with the script. Other than that, it wasn’t a bad job, but there is room for growth, especially with combining croaking with dialogue.

Jesus Patterson: Cricket/Goat

There was no clearer indicator that the group never worked in the space with the set or costumes before, than observing this fellow. Cricket’s antennas were so long that they were literally whipping everyone in close proximity to them. However, his control of his body was quite good, and he did really well to compensate for the lack of experience wearing the costume as the play progressed.

Nailah Blackman-Thornhill: Bird

When I recall her performance I think “oh what a nice dancer”…but…other than that, nothing else really comes to mind.

Ruby Parris

“Work those wings girl!” Parris never let her energy fall, of all the creatures in the forest I remember the firefly most vividly. Simply because she did a really good job in maintaining her character…just wish I heard her dialogue.

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From The Left: Naila Thornhill (Bird), Asha Sheppard (Frog), Jesus Patterson as Cricket and Ruby Parris | Photo Credit: Eric Barry

Leslie-Ann Lavine: Mother

Lavine’s energy and physicality were ‘on point’, however, I would really have loved to hear her words.

Kurtis Gross: Gros-Jean

I couldn’t imagine a more underwhelming performance from such an experienced actor. It seemed as if he never worked with his hand held prop before, moreover the most belief breaking moment of the play was when he dropped his axe in anticipation for a choreographed ‘dance’ move with Bird. However, it was nice to actually hear his dialogue.

Nickolai Salcedo: Mi-Jean

I was left wondering if he ever used the fishing net in rehearsal, since while on stage he seemed to not know what to do with it. However, Salcedo brought an energy and commitment to the performance that kept you alert, but I’m not sure if it was enough to help the audience to maintain a suspension of disbelief.

Muhammad Muwakil: Ti-Jean

One of the most experienced actors, with multiple Cacique awards to his name, Muwakil was the easiest actor/character to follow, though the scene where he played drunk left me confused.

Tishanna Williams: Bolom 

Admittedly one of my favourite local actresses/actors, I felt disappointed to witness her performance. While her characterization was good, it was unoriginal…she was obviously imitating ‘Smeagol’ from the Lord of the Ring series, both in body and voice. Furthermore, her enunciation was bad, so I am yet to hear a single word she uttered on stage.

Aaron Schneider: Devil/Planter/Old Man:

“A poor ‘Wendell Manwarren’ imitation”, it looked as if he spent more time trying to imitate Manwarren (the character he seemed to be playing was Mr Manwarren rather than the Devil/Planter)  than he spent creating his character(s). I heard bits and pieces of his dialogue, but his performance became labouring to look at since it seemed as if he was struggling with remembering his lines. So much so that Muwakil seemed to be attempting to help push the play forward while Schneider seemed to really want to remember his lines.


The Directing:

I once heard Dr. L. Efebo Wilkinson say, “You see the hand of the director less when the performance is good, and you see it a lot more when it’s bad”. Well, I couldn’t help but question the producer’s choice in the Director, plays aren’t easy to put together, but this was the worst meshing together of ‘moment to moment’ movement that I can recall having witnessed since watching amateur student productions. I felt as if the Director did not understand the structure or the essence of the play, which led to a wide range of decisions based on spectacle/aesthetics rather than moving the play from beat to beat, moment to moment. Moreover, in my opinion I believe that most of the flaws that I noted earlier regarding the use of the stage showed an inherent lack of understanding of the theater space and what is needed (and not needed) to allow for optimal use of the Little Carib’s intimate setting. This performance is a reminder that despite past achievements, your most current production is most telling, so keep working Christine Johnston, your job not done yet!

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Brenda Hughes- Producer (Left), Christine Johnston – Director (Center), Carol LaChapelle- Choreographer (Right) and the Cast of Monkey Mountain’s Ti-Jean and His Brothers | Photo Credit: Michele Jorsling


Ti-Jean and His Brothers last performance will play at The Little Carib Theatre, 6:30pm on Sunday 31 May 2015.

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15 thoughts on “Review – Monkey Mountain’s ‘Unbelievable’ Performance of Ti-Jean and His Brothers! No Really, I’m still in disbelief…

  1. playing the role of devil I must say, one. I have never seen Manwarren’s interpretation and two, those who truly want to critique do not come on opening night, on opening night we had the bacchanalists and gossips and on closing night the true intellects, funny that the same Dr. Efebo Wilkinson stayed back on closing night to thank the cast and said ” A new Ti Jean for A new generation, very well done” but then again, who is Efebo Wilkinson compared to you huh? carry on fine and bitter sir!

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    • Glad to hear how you regard your audience, I (a member of the audience on opening night) hope this view is not an extension of Monkey Mountain’s view of their audience…after all, an audience can make or break even the best performances..”bakanlists and gossips”..let me ask, were the sponsor reps, Trinidadian culturalists and media present on opening night also part of the bakanalists and gossips you speak of? Choose your words wisely, you actually sound more bitter than this critic…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s a misguided thinking that a production is not expected to be ready on opening night. If we care anything about the theatre we must be honest and face the fact that many producers, directors and actors have dishonoured and devalued their craft by failing to do the work. Why charge a premium for opening night?
    Learning lines and posturing before a set after a couple of weeks of rehearsal does not make good theatre, especially for a musical of this depth of meaning, breath of language and power music.
    What I saw on opening night was tragic. The problems stem from misguided producer’s choices, poor casting, weak and indecisive hand of the director (I cannot really blame the actors, they depend on the director to shape what they bring forward), ineffective use of the band, strange interpretation of the classic work of the composer (this musical lacked musicality magic and joy) choreography which seemed just plopped on top of the work and was a disturbing distraction, the folly of choice of having the lead actor design both set and costume as well as undertake such a challenging and complexed role.
    If we cannot take our work seriously, and be honest and open to critique then we are destroying and devaluing the very thing we claim to hold dear. Come on let’s face it, the show was not good, and saying so does not mean that one is bitter.

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  3. you are quite right, I apologise sincerely for using such strong words, completely un called for. It was a gut reaction and pretty immature, I admit. So I am sorry and take that back!

    I do have some questions

    What does one do to become a reviewer for this blog?

    Is there a body of work anywhere where your theatrical prowess has been shown so I can gain credence for your opinion?

    Please do not be offended, what is your age? I ask this because I am hoping you are of age to make comparisons to the Ti Jean that was done featuring other actors as I know this was in the eighties

    these are all, I do not mind opinion, however I do believe reviewing is an art that should only be done by those with the ability and PUBLIC RESPECT for known past bodies of work.

    So In a calmer and less angry temper, I say good sir

    that yes

    I am bitter, for effort, heart and compassion go into productions in a land where actors suffer many many injustices and yet they get on that stage and give as best they can!, being bitchy is for movies like devil wears prada and all that, these are humans and my belief is no matter your opinion it can be said in a way to not make people feel attacked

    If you want to help a craft that is still evolving and finding its footing please, please please consider attending closing night or at least two shows in.

    Once again I apologize for my first post

    it was rude and a passionate reaction

    we are all here for the same goal

    Liked by 1 person

    • Greetings Aaron,

      Thanks for engaging. :). Our contributors are selected based on their passion for the Theatre and desire to see it develop; their ability to be honest about their experiences even when things don’t work well; their personal style and ability to express themselves through writing, as well as their openness to being critiqued and ability to handle it with grace, as being on our writing team does not exempt them or their productions from being critiqued as well. In fact the team is much more meticulous with each other and their performance. Our team is made up of 24 individuals with various years of experience and educational backgrounds in theatre from different institutions. We have also included couple non performers on our team who are passionate about theatre as it is not only the well lived or persons of one school of thought who attend the theatre. Their perspective is also valid so representing that diversity is important to us.

      In additions to the considerations above, the author of this entry adds unique value to our team based on his knowledge, understanding and preference for Caribbean Theatre. The days that our reviewers attend are dependent on when and how many tickets or media passes are made available to us. The writer(s) who would then attend is based on their availability to attend and produce a review according to the guidelines that are outlined in their agreement… guidelines that are continuously being refined as we continually try to evolve to be better than we once were.

      That said, Theatre is a living thing- it is always changing. So the night that our team attends for better or for worse may be different from the previous or following nights and may not necessarily be indicative of an entire run… but they are tasked to review the show they attend and are to mention specifically the date on which they attend.

      As working thespians ourselves we understand your initial reaction, as a community working toward building the Theatre community we appreciate and accept your apology 🙂

      If you are interested in joining our team subscribe to mailing list → http://eepurl.com/bePQ4b

      Cheers 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. sad and true the show was not ready, sad and true it was tragic, but this is not discussing the actual work, this is discussing a messy opening night, which makes no sense. so thank you for the opinions (though it is our own fault) I will not discuss this show with anyone who saw only opening night as it has been agreed upon that it was a mess, now I
    move on to discuss the work that happened once the unfortunate events were worked out. if you did not see this work we have nothing to discuss! so thanks for the attendance and all the best in future endeavors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh! We’d love to know how it developed and encourage you, the cast to share a perspective that the review does not reflect. Knowing that one can come back from a less than perfect opening; that each performance is another chance to grow and get better is an important lesson for us to learn/ remember in this business theatre. How one can develop in the business and art of Theatre is the underlying story being told on this platform. We welcome that discussion when you are ready and critique of our writers is always welcomed. An outside perspective is necessary for our team to develop.

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  5. Hi Aaron, my age is irrelevant since the context of the assessment done on characterization was not based on comparing performances of said characters. They were simple observations. Have a look again at what was said: “A poor ‘Wendell Manwarren’ imitation, it looked as if he spent more time trying to imitate Manwarren than he spent creating his character(s)”. This means the character you played seemed to be Mr. Manwarren. (I did not know that Manwarren played the devil before).

    I do apologize for whatever hurt you may be feeling, as a fellow practitioner I know the struggles of putting a performance together and I thank you for the critique of my review. However, I ask that you understand that while you continue to work on your craft, I too am learning and continue to develop my review writing skills.

    Furthermore, it is my sincere belief that we must hold each other accountable if we are to get better at what we do and give audiences their due, regardless of the night they come to see the show. Moreover, I wish you the best of luck in future endeavours and hope that you learn to endow each night of performance with equal respect. Thank you again for your feedback, it was educational.

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  6. Does a painter justify why his art was perceived as horrible after the critique has spoken on it?
    Does the painter say it was a first draft and will improve over the next couple days???

    One’s age has nothing, NOTHING to do with their opinion on how the ART made them FEEL.. It is out of place to question ones credibility in order to justify whether or not you should value their opinion.. It is low and nothing short of “pappy showing” the reviewer..
    I am appalled that actors of that caliber still have such an atrocious attitude towards the reviewer.. It is low, it is unbecoming and it is distasteful especially considering the fact that the reviewer is first and foremost a displeased audience member..

    Here we have a young man, hurt to have seen Walcott’s work, a passion, torn to tatters, and all that can be responded was his credibility, age and knowledge of previous work…?

    He wrote on what he saw..
    He wrote how he felt..
    A writer is also an artist..
    and there is nothing that needs to qualify him to write a review..

    It’s nice to have your own opinion, but don’t let it be the only opinion u own..
    Humility maketh man, woman,
    professional and novice.

    -Red.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I attended opening night and saw the tragedy myself, I also returned to the Saturday night performance with my wife and children. The Improvements were dramatic and almost shocking. What had begun as what seemed to be a company’s hope to get to the end of a gruelling dress/tech rehearsal had over the course of two days transformed into a wonderful fairy tale. My take is this, though we accept that many times local performances are not ready by opening night, this is not the standard to which we should ever achieve. I paid for both my tickets and that of my family and was robbed on opening night. If I were to write a review it would never be on the opening night of anything in this country. I am a Walcott enthusiast from a very long time ago and was nervous at the very start when I saw the bright costumes and whimsical set, this was not a way I had seen Walcott presented before and after opening night I forced myself to not form an opinion. In my return it was almost halfway through the final act that I even remembered that I had a problem with the seeming lightness of all of it! This was a new show, actors were comfortable and the story ran smoothly, I was entertained and found humour in parts of this story I had never found humour before and for the first time I asked myself this question , “what is the result of treating lightly with such an intense script” and when done well the result was magnificent. Director Christine Johnson had fooled me into believing that there was no reason to lift my guard as the material I was about to see was going to be treated like a fairy tale, and Grimm’s came to mind. Well done ma’am I see your point! Thank you and your wonderful cast, I know not what caused your opening night but I can say that it should really not happen as a wonderfully told story was robbed of its audience for at least one night.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. To the reviewers on this blog all I would say is that as is our theatre in its growing stages so is any attempt to setup a reputable reviewing service. It seems to me that Mr. Schneider’s passion got the better of him in entertaining these conversations on this forum but I do say that as he and his cast are being asked to look themselves over I suggest the same, there are indeed many ways to say things and whether I agree with his opinions or not it is obvious that he has been in some way hurt by this process of review and does have right to ask the questions he is asking . I am sorry maybe it is my own long years but I too believe that reviewer needs to be respected in the field in some way before deciding on forming opinion into critique, I paint and you can be damned sure that I argue back with my critiques.

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    • Thank you for your commments ThesssP. Now that’s a balanced view from someone who attended opening night and came back on Saturday night! Anybody going to theatre in T&T especially any reviewer knows that given all our restraints, it’s unfair to critique an opening night. Opening nights ‘in foreign’ come after weeks of previews and getting it right, so it’s vastly unfair to compare the two.

      We had some additional challenges as well. So thanks as well to ThesssP for giving us another chance.

      And since I have decided to engage this blog when at first I had taken a firm decision to ignore it let me just say that I knew that people who came would either love it or hate it, but I decided to treat with the play as the fairy tale it was intended to be. I didn’t highlight the socio-political undertones and I took my cue from something Walcott himself had written:

      “Our culture needs both preservation and resurgence, our cries need an epiphany, a spiritual definition, and an art can emerge from our poverty, creating its own elation. Our resilience is in our tragic joy, in the catharsis of folk humour. Our art, for the time being, because it emerges from and speaks to the poor, will find its antean renewal in folktale and parable. We present to others a deceptive simplicity that they may dismiss as provincial, primitive, childish, but which is in truth a radical innocence. That is what our fable is about” – Derek Walcott taken from ‘A Season of Plays’, Handbook of the Trinidad Theatre WOrkshop, production of ‘Ti-Jean and Dream on Monkey Mountain’ at the Creative Arts Centre, Mona, Jamaica, in April 1971.

      I concentrated on making the magic of the fairy tale live – a REAL fairy tale that has menace and monsters and no real ‘happily ever after ending’ and the audience could then derive from the language and the situations, whatever socio-political implications were there, because they are inherent.

      Liked by 1 person

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