Theatre is important to civilization because it empowers us with stories. At its most powerful, people get a chance to tell their own stories to an audience of others – the person who feels it, preaching to those who may never know it. It’s what makes productions like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and ‘For Coloured Girls’ such inspiring performances (of course, in addition to honest writing in the bodies of a capable director and cast). It’s also what makes Eintou Springer’s ‘Shades of I-She’ so powerful as well – honest stories written in a way that immediately resonate with those who’ve shared them, but that also shock those without those experiences into attention and, hopefully, compassion. It’s free to explore the multiple expressions of personhood, or womanhood in the case of ‘Shades of I-She’; in so doing, it focuses the lens less on the people on stage, and more on the people looking at it.
From the left: Eintou Springer, Mavis John, Eunice Alleyne. Photo courtesy Paula Lindo
‘Shades of I-She is at once triggering and captivating. Eintou Springer’s direct yet eloquent monologues might’ve been challenging enough if just performed by the poet herself, but the cast of women breathe life (and maybe some very real pain) into the work. Not even fifteen minutes into the play’s first act did I find myself wondering, what if someone in the audience had experienced the same things as these women – the trauma, the anguish, the loneliness – could they sit through this? There are a few women that cross my mind that definitely couldn’t. Not because the play is bad, but because it’s all too good. The director herself said, of past stagings of the same production, that people would run out of the audience crying. When you see it, it’s not a mystery why.
Speaking of the actresses, performance stalwarts Eunice Alleyne, Mavis John and Eintou Springer don’t seem faint at all while sharing the stage with a cast of younger performers. Ms. John’s performances are particularly standout; while she is certainly not as nimble as her younger stage partners, she is easily one of the more spritely, with her moments being undeniably the funniest and most relieving. The younger performers – Dara Healy, Khailah Bernard, Kiah Mulrain and Shanya Springer – are as intense as the play itself is. I, for one, couldn’t help but think that the Big Black Box stage wasn’t big enough for these women. It’s true on a physical level, sure – a lot of the movement is almost painfully close, and the brief moment of stick-fighting was almost anxiety-inducing – but the energy of these women, sharing the stage as well as each other’s characters, continues slowly building. Sometimes, even when the monologue itself abruptly ends.
To be fair, the play may feel like a lot of the same to some, especially men who already expected a feminist bash-fest. By no means was that what ‘I-She’ was, mind you, but I could completely understand how the average Joe might think that. The actual shades of womanhood that we’re exposed to for most of the production are familiar – whether through rape, incest, HIV-positive status, forced prostitution or unwanted pregnancy, the character is that of a victim.
By extension, there seems to be only one prominent shade of manhood – abuser. It becomes a challenge to think of men as anything other than those who bring harm. But perhaps that’s the point. In a society that does not invite or encourage women to play any other role than a man’s (unwilling) subject, we probably can’t think of a man as anything more than a violent dictator. There are still a few surprising characters that rear their heads in this production – the femme fatale, herself a victim of promiscuity; the lover, eager to share with her man; even the woman eager to find a man worthy of her affections. But lots of the piece still tells a traditional tale of trauma, albeit with Eintou Springer’s articulate pointedness.
If you’re worried about what sitting in on this production would mean for your psyche, don’t be. ‘Shades of I-She’ is certainly not all trauma. The production has a keen focus on its own emotional balance, melding in song and dance to break its own tension, or at least soothe us as we journey. In the same spirit of these stories being shared by every woman, no one actress shoulders the responsibility of the production’s other aspects. Almost every woman dances, and while most songs are handled by the talented Ms. John, the other women do lend their voices to the play’s various lavways and chants. Young Shanya Springer notably gets a chance to serenade the audience as well as sing praise to Oshun, and does not disappoint.
Simply put, the play ‘Shades of I-She’ is a must-see. For the women who feel it, and the men and women who have not. Though the commercial run of the play is now over, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network plans to tour the production in communities around Trinidad. Hopefully it will find its way to your community centre or church hall. Hopefully you and all your friends (make sure and carry the men!) are free to see it. Hopefully you get to see these women – see ‘I-She’ – in all their myriad shades.