by Simon Wilkes
On Friday 15th July 2016 at the Central Bank Auditorium, the.art.IS’ Performing Arts Company in collaboration with ParentingTT presented ‘To Light,’ a play about the effects of alcoholism upon the family. ‘To Light’ reflected issues that many audience members may find familiar: addiction, gender and sexual inequality, and broken domestic households. What separated this play from the countless others that have dealt with similar themes was the fact that the audience was asked to decide the ending of the play. Escapism tied together with emotional catharsis has become the hallmark of many a theatrical performance, a somewhat inevitable consequence of the socio-political landscape we find facing our country, the region and the world at large. ‘To Light’ was an attempt to break with the strictly traditional model of theatrical realism and offer audiences a means of engaging as active participants and speaking back in some part to but a few of the issues surrounding us.
“To Light” tells the story of Marlon (Chaquille Charles), a teenage schoolboy, and the challenges facing his family due to his father, Terrence’s (Errol Fabien) recent unemployment. Marlon’s troubles are noticed by Ravi (Jarod Baptiste) his childhood best friend. Ravi acts as a mediator between the world of the play and the audience, freely commenting upon the plot and its characters. Hoping to help his friend, Ravi tries to convince their friends Justin (Kyle Richardson) and Joseph (Joshua Moodoo), to talk to Marlon about his problems. Both Justin and Joseph, reject Ravi’s desire to assist their friend with Joseph dismissing the thought of boys discussing their emotions as a humorous affair, while Justin is far more preoccupied with pursuing the girls of their school. The play’s dramatic tension comes to a head when Marlon’s sister, Shenice (Aaliyah Thomas), hoping to convince her father to return to their family, leaves home to search the various bars of the neighborhood. The audience, who was asked to vote upon the family member that would attempt to reach out to Terrence, determined the final scene of the play.
The play’s minimalist set was one of its more realist features, intended to draw the audience further into the story. A staircase on either side of the predominantly bare stage led up to a small balcony fringed by black curtains on either side. Throughout the performance, actors bring simple set piece such as chairs, a bed and a bar on stage. Characters appear onstage from behind columns, hinting at their concerns and disappearing again offstage before the audience is given further insight. The movement of bodies onstage leaves much to the audience’s imagination and these moments are some of the most compelling of this production. Audience’s are teased the potential worries of characters such as Justin or Shenice but are never fully satisfied with the knowledge of the inner lives.
As suggested by the title of this play, light as well as its absence, played a prominent element of this play. The lighting elements of this play served to reveal a glimpse of the struggles facing but a few of the characters of the play, a fact that acts as adequate a metaphor of contemporary life as any other. How often do we assure ourselves that, like Marlon, we are capable of facing our own struggles without assistance? Spotlights were used to highlight the movement of characters on the staircases along the stage, often following their movements unsteadily. Although I initially found this distracting, when considered along with the characters being shown in those moments, the light adds a subtle means of accenting their character. Ravi, Marlon and Terrence are each shone with a single spotlight throughout the performance, either during an exposition to the audience or a brief moment of encounter as between Marlon and Terrence. What the light reveals itself in these moments is the contradictory nature of the characters of themselves–on the surface they often appear strong or stable but underneath they may feel fragile, insecure or helpless.
The entire cast was emotionally present and committed in their scenes. This was both the strength and shortcoming of this production. There were numerous cases where; while the actors were fully committed to their own emotions and their scene partners, they may have forgotten with whom they were sharing their story. As someone who sat towards the back of the auditorium, it was difficult, particularly during scenes between Ravi, Joseph and Justin to hear the dialogue of the characters on stage. In other cases, actors sometimes failed to clearly articulate their lines, causing some to be lost to my ear completely. Something that I have noticed several times in various performances in theatre, is that in times of heightened dramatic tension, actors may find themselves overwhelmed by their own emotions and may fail to adequately support their voices with a deep enough breath. This was the case several times with Marlon, during his scene with Justin and his meeting with his father, in which, consumed by raw emotion, his voice was forced and ungrounded, diminishing the potency of his line and the moment to the audience. One of the more successful examples came from Terrence, who in the final scene with his wife in particular, maintained a strong, clear, well supported voice throughout, while maintaining a drunken impression.
The voice is often viewed as the actor’s primary instrument onstage and one of the actor’s most challenging tasks is to allow themselves to connect to the emotions, and impulses of their own voice, allowing it to flow naturally through its various pitches in response to one’s impulses and the actions of others onstage. Although there were some cases where an actor’s voice settled into a single tone or pitch for an extended period of time, the majority of the cast did a good job of maintaining a technical awareness of their instruments throughout their performance.
All in all, the production was an innovative experiment in the realm of theatrical performance in Trinidad and Tobago, and is one sorely needed in this country. So much of our theatre seems to follow the same distinctive patterns, playing the all too familiar notes and producing the much the same type of work from show to show. A theatre that does not seek to grow or develop is worse than dead, it is stagnant and disconnected from the social conditions which gave it birth. The influence of Augusto Boal in this piece was an exciting discovery during my brief chat with the director following the performance, and hope that there are further efforts made to employ more of his techniques in the future. Boal was a Brazilian director, writer and politician, noted for developing ‘Theatre of the Oppressed.’. Unfortunately, it seems that ‘To Light’ was put on for a single night, but it was an encouraging example of work committed to addressing the sociopolitical concerns of our context and developing our understanding of the possibilities inherent to theatrical performance.