‘Belly Woman’ born from pain, memory
There are parts of Belly Woman, the theatrical production which opened on Friday to anchor the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts' Founders Week observances, which are painful to watch.
At least one - the ritualised sexual domination of the slave Belly Woman (Joniel Taylor) by the Devil of a plantation owner (Jason Richards) results in the literal belly swelling of a forced meeting of races. And kicks to the gut are included in the beatings of Jack in the Green (Kanille Brundy) by the easily dislikeable Duke (Yohan Reynolds), Lord (Shemar Ricketts) and black toady Policeman (Aaron Moodie), the slave men often humiliated in front of their women.
As gut-wrenching as much of the tale which incorporates elements of Three Finger Jack's story and the legend of Lover's Leap are, it is the heads of writer Omaall 'Maja Bless' Wright and first-time director Dorraine Reid that it comes to spectacular life with the masks and movement of jonkunnu, along with chorale singing.
After Sunday evening's show, Wright told The Gleaner that the idea of utilising jonkunnu for a theatrical production comes from his growing up in Denham Town, Kingston, where "there was a jonkunnu band. More and more, over the years they would perform less and less."
With his deep interest in culture, Wright considered starting a youth jonkunnu band, but it was while he was a student at the college that the memories informed the earliest script of Belly Woman in a devising theatre class with Eugene Williams. With his poetry background, Maja Bless wrote the script with rhymes, which he maintained for the longer version, although he notes that it was complicated to maintain the dialogue in the longer form required for production.
Reid, who heads drama in education at the college, encountered Belly Woman in its shorter form at a reading in which members of the I AM theatrical movement participated. It stuck with her and when she needed a script, Reid called on Wright. She also called for students of the college (who comprise the cast) to audition.
"They bought into Belly Woman early," Reid said. This made her job of pulling all the elements together easier, but Reid noted that there were actors like Aaron Moodie, who plays the coloured Policeman enthusiastically complicit with the whites, whose off-stage outlook is totally different. Reid was determined to stretch his capabilities, with excellent results.
Belly Woman has a lot of movement and singing, the drama students coached in the former by Patrick Earle and Johnnoy Johnson, and in the latter by Leighton Jones. Reid said they were carefully chosen. "I did not want to see dancers on stage. I wanted drama," she said, the equivalent going for the singing.
As for making her directorial debut, Reid said, "I am pleased with what came out of the work."
Belly Woman is produced by Pierre Lemaire.