REVIEW: I couldn’t have been more wrong about “Play Yuhself, Prime Minister”

On Sunday 8th of May, I was granted the opportunity of attending a performance of Play Yuhself, Prime Minister, a Raymond Choo Kong (in collaboration with First Instincts) production that was a raucous romp centered on the Prime Minister, Rawle Lee (Choo Kong) as he prepares with his pious Minister of Finance (Keino Swamber) for a momentous budget report the following day that would place major restrictions on illicit and “immoral” activities. The whirlwind of nudity, blackmail, miscommunication, mistaken identities, accusations of debauchery and general hilarity is set in motion when a young woman, Maxine (Jeanine Lee Kim), star dancer at the “Pussy Galore,” stumbles into the Prime Minister’s office with a claim connected to his philandering past and demanding a halt to his “Make Morality Matter” movement. Play Yuhself was marketed as “a farce in its truest form.” The common conception of a “farce” tends to skew towards the low brow, physical gags, highly improbable situations and little to no plot or characterization. Going into the play, based on radio ads and posters, this was the kind of experience I was expecting – minimal theatrical intricacy and a relentless barrage of cheap, likely crass, jokes; much to my delight, I judged the book by the misguiding cover and couldn’t be more wrong. Though it may not be considered deeply profound or thought provoking, for a comedy Play Yuhself achieved a surprising level of satire and wit.

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For starters, when the house went to black for the play to begin, 3 Canal’s “Talk Yuh Talk” blasted through the speakers, suitably setting the stage with its jaunty rhythm and biting, satirical lyrics for the “mocking pretenders” to come. The play opened to its titular character, Prime Minister Rawle Lee, highlighted under a spotlight in the middle of a darkened stage orating a political speech. With all its grandstanding promises and declarations it could have easily fit right in at any political rally in the country around election time. Choo Kong, delivered this serious speech directly to the audience, fourth wall be damned. The combination of lighting and a well written send up of a political speech helped to establish Rawle Lee as a politician for the audience. As he addressed us in such an uncanny imitation of his real life counterparts, it was easy to suspend disbelief, slip into the world of the play and accept that for the next couple of hours the man on stage would be our Prime Minister.

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Photography by Kerrie T. Naranjit

Choo Kong played this character with convincing skill. He managed to portray a kind of political everyman through various little quirks in characterization. His faux-foreign accent and side-swept grey hair immediately brought Basdeo Panday to mind; his dependence on his secret stash of scotch recalled the popular held beliefs about Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s recreational habits; and his name, Rawle Lee, needs no further explanation to get the reference. The character also served as a potent satirical picture of our political leaders. His regular repetition of other characters’ lines as a recurring joke signified his proclivity for parroting thoughts instead of having his own, making fun of the real life accusations our leaders face of being puppets and powerless figureheads.

The other performances that left an impression with me were Persad (Trevon C. Jugmohan) Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister, and The Prime Minister’s wife (Cecilia Salazar). Persad exuded an infectious charisma when giddily running off to serve his boss and a frantic, kinetic nervousness when dashing back and forth trying to clean up after the Prime Minister. There were a couple of well-choreographed stunts where he would nonchalantly catch an unexpectedly thrown bottle that came off as rather impressive with the ease and timing with which they were performed. The wife of the Prime Minister also delivered a stellar performance. She played the airhead trophy-wife cliché with finesse while still managing an air of regality that felt befitting of the first lady of the country. Her fussiness and self-absorbed preoccupation with blood donations set up, and served as the punch-line for, numerous jokes.

I found the set design to be very clever. As the inside of the Prime Minister’s office, with no more than a desk in the middle, a table and chair and a couch, the unchanging scenery never got tiresome or boring thanks to the clever use of the four doors on  either side of the stage. Characters entered and exited as they pleased and rarely ever knocked. This added a layer of tension and suspense whenever something particularly ridiculous was happening on stage. When Maxine decided to strip down to her underwear in the middle of the office, there was the sense that anyone could barge in at any minute on the unexpected scene. It also meant that actors could leave the stage and it would still feel like they were a part of the scene. They were simply in the library or in the waiting room, likely overhearing all the scandalous accusations and discoveries passing in the office. On the other hand, I thought that for such a well-established troupe and a relatively high end production, the director could have been more inventive with the lighting. Other than the spotlight on Choo Kong in the beginning, the lighting remained a fixed brightness throughout. The only deviation came in the blackouts that punctuated the scenes.

The highlight of the play, for me, however, was the dense and witty dialogue. Choo Kong took the cake for the sheer volume of lines that he memorized and impressively delivered with very few and hardly noticeable hiccups. Throughout the play clever little plays on words were littered in the dialogue. One example is in the Prime Minister’s otherwise serious opening monologue. When he loses his place and asks Persad to remind him of his line, Persad responds, “You appeal to the shortsighted, sir,” which Choo Kong parrots emphatically, delivering the double entendre with a deadpan obliviousness that made the joke easy for the audience to miss, but rewarding for those that caught it.

It was pleasantly surprising to find that although there were many farcical elements to Play Yuhself, Choo Kong managed to conjure a cast of compelling and well-acted characters, graced them with a script full of dense and witty dialogue and dropped them in the middle of a hilariously convoluted plot- all laid on a nicely made bed of sharp and timely satire. Choo Kong played to the audience’s desires brilliantly. He took all the elements of Trinidad politics that capture the attention of the public, created a farcical exaggeration of those elements and put it on stage. Of course this meant a play that dealt less in politics and more in scandal, picong and bacchanal. I’m not sure whether that is a more telling statement of the people or the politicians, but I am sure that Play Yuhself, Prime Minister was a raucously funny play.

Play Yuhself Prime Minister continues Friday 27th – Sunday 29th May at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

FullSizeRenderHey, Shazim Khan here! I’m a student of literature at UWI, which happened as a result of a long time fascination with words in all their various forms and mediums. I also have a deep affinity for the arts on the whole, especially music of all genres – I’m an amateur guitarist.

I’ve recently been introduced to the fascinating world of theatre. The spellbinding magic that can be so expertly conjured on stage has captivated me and inspired a desire to learn and experience as much as possible of this timeless and magnificent craft.

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