Honoring Derek Walcott
Jules Becker | 3/8/2011, 6:53 p.m.
New production showcases Nobel laureate playwright’s work
Boston Playwrights Theatre (BPT), now beginning its 30th anniversary season, is honoring its black Caribbean founder and former artistic director Derek Walcott in the most fitting way possible — by putting on one of his plays.
Witness its co-production with Underground Railway Theatre (URT) at Central Square Theatre of the Nobel Prize winner’s 1958 folk parable “Ti- Jean and His Brothers.” Happily, the creative design team and the largely exuberant cast are doing all they can to make this commemoration truly memorable.
The only reservation — covered much of the time by this stellar collaboration — is that the text of the St. Lucia-born author’s highly poetic play does not ultimately have the kind of dramatic force present in much of his best work, most notably his masterful 1967 drama “Dream on Monkey Mountain.”
Focusing on a poor but indomitable mother and her three sons — in this production “a Haitian-inspired setting” to commemorate the severe recent earthquake, “Ti-Jean and His Brothers” brings together morality play and West Indian fable.
The matriarch, identified simply as Mother, warns her three sons to beware the “hidden nets of the devil,” who takes on such disguises as a woman, a sage and a bishop. As the story unfolds, the devil entices each of the brothers to combat with the promise of never experiencing hunger again should he bring the villain “feelings of rage” and therefore triumph over the forces of evil. If the mortal combatant succumbs to rage himself, the sadistic devil will win.
Understandably the brothers are a study in contrast. The oldest, Gros-Jean, relies on muscle. The middle brother — aptly named Mi-Jean — is an avid reader who believes that intellect and the mind are the best weapons to defeat the devil. Youngest Ti-Jean prepares to brandish his resourcefulness and common sense. During and around the three individual rounds of confrontation that follow, Walcott inserts telling images of the manipulation of the poor residents by rich imperialists vividly associated with the devil. Eventually Ti - Jean, compared favorably with the biblical Israelite King David and employing a slingshot to boot, defeats the devil, who is unsurprisingly associated with David’s giant opponent Goliath. Where the plotting sometimes seems predictable, the poetry and the folklore keep the proceedings exuberant.
Throughout the production, choreographer Jean Appolon supplies the strong cast with lively dances complementing the original snappy music of Andre Tanker and sharp lyrics of Tanker and Walcott himself, here under the skillful music direction of Kera Washington.
Washington doubles effectively on sound, especially with strong design as the brothers in turn take on the devil. Sara Ossana brings depth and ambiance to her set design — especially to the upper level home of Mother and her sons and to the surrounding bamboo-rich landscape. Her puppets do much for the folklore elements of the play.
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian has worked well with an enthusiastic and properly agile cast. Sonya Raye captures both the heart and the strength of Mother. Kervin George Germain finds all of Ti-Jean’s feeling for Mother as well as his bravery and determination as he faces off against the devil. Ramona Lisa Alexander demonstrates her considerable versatility in light-hearted and serious parts, giving vocal distinctiveness and amusing moves to Frog and convincing ferocity to the devil in one of his disguises.
Fedna Jacquet as Cricket, Kristin Calabria as Bird, and Joseph Ahmed as Firefly are equally persuasive as other fable characters-in part thanks to Katherine O’Neill’s evocative costumes.
All of these talents do much to enhance Walcott’s folk drama, which does well with the story and fortunes of Mother and her sons. Where the text of the play could do more is with one of Walcott’s trademark themes, that of the exploitation by imperialist outsiders and the damage of colonialism. Such later works as “Pantomime” (1978) and especially “Dream on Monkey Mountain” (presented in an acclaimed Hub visit by Walcott’s own Trinidad TheatreWorkshop in 1995) have more of the home culture-extolling vision that surely contributed significantly to Walcott’s winning the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Even so, BPT and URL are paying timely tribute to both the poet-playwright and Haiti with an inspired collaboration that truly sings.