Quo Vadis – Barbadian Theatre: “Critiquing the laughter Critique” by Margaret Gill
Cultural practices: laughter/ridicule turned on the laughers and not on the stage/plot/performance.
This mimics laughter of colonisers at the rites of African-descended persons. Debasement of Black culture.
I write in response to the play, “Broken Dolls“, held at the Frank Collymore Hall in April 25th and 26th, 2009. Yvonne Weekes, drama teacher at the Barbados Community College scripted and directed the play. She is also writer of the very moving and aesthetically strong Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award-winning short novel, “Volcano.” However, my comments are not so much concerned with the script or the directing as such. I respond mainly to an aspect of Barbadian theatre that is continually critiqued, and one that happened at that play, the fact that audiences laugh at seemingly inappropriate moments. Since I was part of that response at Ms. Weekes play which analysed aspects of mental illness, I thought it useful to reflect on that laughter.
The topic mental illnesses might conceivably not be expected to produce laughter of any kind. In addition, given the premises usually made in the diagnosis of inappropriate laughter, I ought to have been depended on not to laugh during a play with this topic for a further two reasons. First I am diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, and a member of the National Mental Health Commission that is seeking to remove the stigma from mental ill health; second, I am an experienced and trained theatre critic. Why then did I find several aspects of that play that were apparently not intended so to be by the director, so funny? Why was I drawn into that seemingly distancing, and arguably stigmatising laughter at the play’s portrayals of mental illness?
The audience and I were hugely amused, for example, in hearing the use of a few choice Bajan “curse words” while watching the antics of a central figure in the drama at a particularly tense moment for that character. She appeared at that moment to be experiencing a crisis. She attempted to seduce the male nurse, telling him in detail what and what she wanted from him as we would say in Bajan.
The use of curse words/profane language here were evidently not gratuitous, but were quite in sync with the circumstance. So too were her antics as she was being played, I felt, by a sensitive young actor who managed to stay short of melodrama. Nevertheless, truly, it was funny. Dainika Bynoe, who is a very promising young actor, did a good job of establishing an absorbing tension between the outraged, embarrassed, yet concerned young male nurse and herself as the angry, troubled but very defiant and clever young mentally ill woman, Kylika. It was funny because mental illness at that moment seemed so bizarre yet so paradoxically “normal.”
Kylika’s crisis and her clever normality became incongruous and so evoked my laughter. She seemed a “normal” defiant young girl out to do nothing more harmful than scandalise the system, as much of the so-called bashment culture seems aimed at doing. Therefore, what was engaged was not my empathy with her, but my secret enjoyment at seeing authority deposed or made to look ridiculous. That portrayal and response is at the heart of the carnival aesthetic which deliberately aims to equalise and domesticate the official. That aesthetic, what Russian literature scholar Bakhtin calls the carnivalesque, is part of the world in which Barbadian dramatic offerings fall, even, I suspect, offerings in the genre of church theatre. Of course, church theatre would not use curse words, but it does use comedy to break out stories that are rendered quite apparently without humour in the Bible.
The use of the curse words in “Broken Dolls” in the setting of the Frank Collymore Hall with its well-dressed clients also created enough of an incongruity that it produced laughter. Bajan profanities are used generally in Barbados, I believe, also to scandalise more than anything else, so they added to my (and I suspect the audience’s) guilty enjoyment and hence laughter at how the authorities (hospital doctors and nurses in this case) now appeared incapable of responding to something so outside of what was official and authorised and proper. Though why that should be in a ward of mentally imbalanced persons, where such behaviour may not be new or unusual, I cannot explain.
Was anything lost in that experience of laughter at that point by the audience though? I ask this question because all the calls for more “serious” theatre seem predicated on the belief that something about the theatre experience is harmed by “too much” laughter, or laughter at the “wrong” time, or “too much” so-called comic theatre.
From the director’s words on the play bill and the words of Ms. Hartley Alleyne, Senior Tutor of the Division of Fine Arts at the College, I suspect the play’s producers might not have been comfortable with the laughter. Ms Alleyne’s comment suggests this. Her note: “Undoubtedly, the Arts entertain, but the arts must also educate, edify, motivate and challenge us” seems pointed, and not in the direction of laughter for this event. Ms. Weekes’ expressed hope in the play bill that “when you leave the theatre you will recognise the fragility of our spirit. Mental illness is not always about the other” would certainly suggest that she did not desire, or maybe anticipate laughter.