Review: Play Mas, Orange Tree Theatre

by Sabo Kpade

Play Mas/ Orange Tree Theatre

There is a very telling scene in Mustapha Matura’s stage production Play Mas when Samuel (Seun Shote), an apprentice tailor, insists to his employer Ramjohn (Johann Myers) that Ramjohn is not African but Indian. Ramjohn, a descendant of indentured workers, refutes this claim in the firm belief that he is Trinidadian. It is all played for laughs but underneath it is the painful story of how the island of Trinidad was populated first by African slaves and then by Indian and Chinese indentured workers.

First premiered at the Royal Court in 1974, Play Mas is set in Port of Spain in the late 1950s in the days leading to the annual parade when the inhabitants of the island ‘play mas’: dressing up as figures from cinema, history and folklore during the days before Lent. Samuel, who is looking forward to the celebrations, is aghast when Ramjohn admits to never having attended one. They also discuss the small percentage the country makes from its own mineral wealth and the rise of the People’s National Movement (PNM) who came into power following the end of British rule led by Eric Williams, whose lifesize photo is seen on stage along with advertising billboards typical of that era.

Play MasThe pair also competes for cineaste status, with Ramjohn dismissing films that Samuel has seen and he hasn’t as inferior while championing those he has seen in the belief that his tastes are superior. The topic then switches to how to make the perfect suit. Ramjohn elaborately describes what one would look like before telling Samuel of his plans for his own shop independent from his mother Miss Gookool. Ramjohn is a dreamer, weak-willed and too in thrall to his mother to even defend Samuel when she unfairly sacks him for wanting to attend a PNM meeting.

This repartee takes up the bulk of the first section of the play and seems a rather elaborate set up for the second, which is set in 1963 and lasts under forty minutes after a twenty-minute intermission. There is now a power shift in Samuel and Ramjohn’s relationship, but this second section is more preoccupied with how Samuel negotiates his new position. New characters are introduced. His prima donna of a wife (a hilarious Lori Barker) and a delegation to plead for continuation of Mas led by Mrs Banks (Llewella Gideon in good form).

With such a lengthy setup in the first half, one would rightly expect a more fulfilling second half – perhaps through a deeper mining of the racial tensions touched on in the first, which contains one of the most charged scenes in the play during Samuel’s face-off with Miss Gookool. Part of what holds the play together is Matura’s winning humour, played with precise timing by its two leads. Comedic acting might never get the respect it deserves, but for those who appreciate the level of skill required, Shote’s and Myers’ performances are formidable. Each actor’s non-verbal tics, if watched closely, are just as funny as their lines of dialogue.

With humour prioritised over a more searching observation of the implications of self-rule and the racial hodgepodge of the island, Play Mas sits on unequal legs. But this is all admirably teased out in a fine production by Paulette Randall which makes for an enjoyable evening. Hopefully, its success will encourage more revivals of Mustapha Matura’s plays.

Play Mas is at the Orange Tree Theatre until April 11th

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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. Follow him on Twitter @GeekStreetuk

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