Bitter Cassava combines powerful storytelling with dance and song
Visitors to the Colibri Ballroom at the Magdalena Grand were met with an air of anticipation on the opening night (April 15) of the Tobago Performing Arts Company (TPAC) production of Dr. Lester Efebo’s 1970s drama Wilkinson, Bitter Cassava.
Ascending a short staircase to a red-carpeted atrium lined with a mystical douend sentinel-like knuckle, viewers entered a decorated foyer of a carefully curated display. With framed photographs of the playwright, the production team and the TPAC ensemble, as well as information about the show (which could have been put together in a program) gave an immersive feel, with guests enjoying a welcoming and interactive.
Housed in the opulent, spacious and imposing Colibri Hall, the near-full audience – joined by local dignitaries and UK High Commissioner Harriet Cross – was greeted by TPAC chief executive Elvis Radgman. Tourism Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, Tashia Burris, in congratulating the newly formed arts and culture group, brought greetings from Chief Secretary Farley Augustine, reiterating the assembly’s ambition to make of Tobago a regional cultural power.
Some may not have known about the acclaimed and award-winning production, which performed in Trinidad in 2016 and won the Best Village for Playwriting award and the National Drama Festival’s Playwriting Award. Wilkinson’s work is intellectually stimulating, capturing several elements of Caribbean literary and theatrical culture. TPAC’s multi-disciplinary, multimedia effort portrays the vibrant and eclectic tradition – imbued with Tobagonian references in this production – in captivating form.
This is a piece that combines powerful storytelling with dance and song to share a universal story of infidelity, betrayal, loyalty, and real – and possibly supernatural – consequences. Singing, dancing, acting and engaging storytelling are on offer in this riveting production. Sometimes hilarious, often dark, the protagonists are emblematic of shifting mood and tone; authentically echoing them.
Several episodic scenes earn two acts carrying the narrative, in flashback, as Pa Cefus (Akinlabi Holder) recounts the dramatic episode to the local policeman (Levee Rodriguez), each encounter unfolding, unpacking the complex relationships and infidelities of Samuel (Dwayne White Jr.), his longtime partner Justina (Kedisha Thomas), and his wife Betty-Lou (Cherysh La Touche).
Calypso, bele dancing, spiritual Baptist-influenced hymn-singing, and powerful, subtle, and nuanced acting deliver a parable with a truly engaged and enthusiastic cast.
The set is designed simplistically and minimally, but with enough space for the dynamic set to show off its talents. Flo Spencer’s costumes grace the smartly dressed troupe’s many wardrobe changes, performing Shakell Jones’ scintillating choreography.
Leading the intimate and sensitive interactions, dramatic confrontations, and lively, high-energy dance routines that accompany the retroactive narrative journey across multiple scenes, Rayshawn Pierre-Kerr deftly directs the multi-faceted and intricately balanced production.
The playwright’s enthralling dialogue is a wealth of folk language, echoing the Caribbean’s multilingual discourse, evocative and filled with lyrical aphorisms.
The play’s ten songs are a thrilling complement to the clearly laid out storyline – essential to transporting the story through the ages. The lyrics of these songs evoke the vision, the spirituality and the feeling of the protagonists – as well as the consequences and the repercussions of the imbroglio. Incidental music – atmospheric and engaging with sensitivity – enhances intense interactions and energetic dance routines.
The acoustics and sound were crystal clear, with the unseen but well-drilled live band (percussion, pan, bass, fiddle and more) impressive across an array of musical genres. Similarly, the lighting (Cindy-Lou Edwards) was an integral part of the performance and the sound and visuals could also be seen as invisible actors.
There are many outstanding performances.
Charismatic White Jr completely convinced in the role of Samuel Blondell. We understand why the loving ram of the village is an attraction for the many women in his “stable”. Eloquent, passionate and manly, his vulnerability is exposed when the repercussions and consequences of his infidelity come back to haunt him. White’s performance captures the full gamut of emotional states – from unstable madness to self-assured arrogance, from recklessness and joyful exuberance to malevolent malice.
Counseling Samuel, the former village scholar Pa Cefus in Holder’s portrayal, embodies the narrator’s eloquence with multilingual and vernacular speech, wisdom and empathy.
Thomas’s Justina, her expressive, powerful and painful song, induces sympathy, a contrast to the contempt displayed by her neighbors whose malicious taunts lead to tragedy.
Blending his authority with sardonic charm, Rodriguez as a cop is persuasive, personifying the impatient, world-weary skepticism of the cop.
At the heart of the date, Betty Lou de La Touche is the sworn enemy of Justina, the other woman turned trophy wife: a perfect fit convincingly portraying the ambivalent narcissism that accompanies a state of pigmentation that does not protect her of the ensuing drama.
Radiating power and authority, magnetism and charisma as a griot/priest/spiritual leader, Zari Kerr’s Papa Iban is a marvel. We meet the eldest in Afrocentric attire on an old-fashioned wedding stroll, with the cast strolling down the central audience hallway. Frenzied in dance routines, with a distinctive sonorous voice (both singing and speaking), Kerr is towering, presiding over his congregation and a spellbound Colibri Hall audience.
There were several set changes, and scene transitions a bit awkward in places, not matching the elegance of the performers on stage, as were the incidents where the room was plunged into sepulchral darkness. But these were minor wrinkles that did not interfere with the smooth running of the production. Nor did they deter the audience from a deserved standing ovation.
The Tobago Performing Arts Company has made a rewarding investment in intellectual, spiritual and emotional development. The educational, historical and cultural returns on investment are incalculable for this brilliant monument of our vibrant Caribbean literature.
Wilkerson’s epic, if performed in one of New York’s flagship venues on Broadway or in London’s theater district, could be a phenomenon.
Bitter Cassava deserves a long stay in Tobago and a tour of the region to demonstrate that this island is indeed a strong contender for Caribbean culture, a sister who can bask in her own dazzling light.
Bitter Cassava was staged by the Tobago Performing Arts Company from April 15-17 at Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort, Tobago.