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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Woodbine or The Last Of The Redmen

Woodbine or The Last Of The Redmen

A play in two acts for one actor by Michael Gilkes

Reviewed by F. E. Alleyne

Tuesday, January 31st 2006, Stabroek News

In his infamous defence of slavery the Victorian Thomas Carlyle once said that the union of abolitionist philosophy and economics, the dismal science, would give birth to "dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!"

If there is any satisfaction to be had for people of the Caribbean where such creatures now abound it is surely in the thought that, were Mr. Carlyle to be transported to the mid-twentieth century Caribbean, he would undoubtedly have imploded from shock as he discovered a world in which we monstrosities had become the guardians and defenders of the very cultural values which he himself had professed to uphold.

But his vengeful spirit must have chortled away in glee as he read the title on the playbill of a stage production at Cara Lodge in Georgetown in January 2006 - Woodbine or The Last Of The Redmen by Michael Gilkes. "At last, a New Millennium and we are free of the Abominations," he must have exulted.

The economists he abhorred could have warned him not to build a hypothesis on a weak assumption - or to believe everything he saw in print, including his own words.

One man, one small room, a few props, and a cozily ensconced rapt audience struggling to keep at bay the tear clouds threatening scattered showers. One life, epitomizing a class, a genus - some memories. The result this time - theatre at its best.

In recent years 'one-man theatre' has become all the rage in New York and, to a lesser extent, in London. But, as we read accounts of even the worst of these, we cannot help but wonder at the amazing skill of an actor who can single-handedly hold an audience without a supporting cast.

Woodbine, is a play in two acts with a sole actor, the playwright, playing the role of the principal protagonist, Mr Redman, whose life is being chronicled, as well as the other four major roles.

This is a tragi-comic fantasy in which Mr Redman, last scion of the Redman family, is also an embodiment of The Redmen, the aptly described social class which occupied the middle rungs of the social and economic ladders of the epidermically stratified societies of the post-war Caribbean. The middle class which served as the bulwark against anarchy.

Mr Redman, the Redman, has in his twilight years been tide-swept into impecunious circumstances and is holding fast against the currents to the standards which characterized his family, the Redmans, while Mr Redman, The Redmen, is dead and being mourned by Mr Redman. The last of the Redmans is determined that his swansong shall be an investigation into who killed his alter ego, The Redmen.

Smoke-and-mirror antics have nothing on this play. It employs deeply psychological sleight-of-hand and intellectually stimulating allegory, interspersed with seemingly prosaic passages, to produce an experience which follows the audience on softly padded feet as they leave, bemused, at its end.

This is serious socio-political analysis elegantly party-dressed as entertainment, and it is an indictment of all modern Caribbean societies and their individual members - all of us.

But entertainment it certainly is too. From the deadpan satire of Mr Redman, punctuated with exquisitely delivered morsels of bawdy humour which never become vulgar, to the 'sweet-boy' mannerisms and machismo of his 'small-days' friend, the play holds the audience in the world it creates.

The emotionally charged sequences of the play are relieved at intervals with slide-shows of the Redmans and The Redmen (including those Redmen who - in the eyes of the Redmans - did not need the characteristic pigment since they were eminently qualified, on all other counts, to be Redmen) as well as by musical pieces, a competently but soullessly executed waltz, and a spirited masquerade dance which puts all modern Guyanese masquerade bands to shame.

The latter is accompanied by the simultaneous screening of a similar dance which, perfunctory though it is, draws the eye, producing an illusory effect as of simultaneous existence and echoing the surrealistic elements of the play itself.

So Who Killed The Redmen?

Act one, Scene one, opens with the parting of a pair of mahogany doors as an elderly man is wheeled onto the stage. He appears to be slightly infirm and displays the distraction and disorientation peculiar to the unutilised elderly.

The setting is the "The Palms", Georgetown, euphemistically called a Gentlemen's Home, a structure which once attempted to match its elegant name but gave up and instead focused all its energies on trying to emulate the decay of the living repositories of history, knowledge and wisdom, abandoned to physical and mental decomposition within its walls.

But this inmate is valiantly fighting the process. His room is incongruously furnished with an elegant escritoire, a legacy from his father, and on it lie a china bell and a few imposing tomes. A champagne flute nestling against a bottle of water proclaims that Roger Algernon Fitzwilliam Redman - self-described alms-house inmate and eccentric old fart - has style.

A knock heralds the advent of an invisible newspaper reporter. Redman, R.A.F. - no, he wasn't in the air force - visibly sloughs off his distracted mien, dons the proverbial stiff upper lip and greets the young man in a benevolently commanding tone which almost hides his pleasure at receiving a visitor and succeeds in intimidating his guest into respectful silence which lasts for the duration of the interview.

The reporter has come because this living relic is heroically attempting to produce a hard copy of the precariously stored contents of his failing memory. He hesitantly sits - assured that old age is not catching - and listens.

And so begins one of the longest and most brilliantly executed soliloquies in the annals of Caribbean theatre, a gem the likes of which have not graced the Guyanese stage in many a year.

Mr Redman is disembowelling his memory and, utilizing the skills clandestinely gleaned from his father's pathology texts, is attempting in this theatrical autopsy to discover, not what, but who, killed the 'middle class'. Exceed his jurisdiction as pathologist he might, but his detective work is no less painstaking as the dissected parts of the deceased are laid out for our examination.

Mr Redman, as we will discover, is uniquely qualified for the task as both pathologist and deceased. But is he also the accused?

And, for that matter, is this autopsy or vivisection? Who says the middle class is dead? Surely a society must have a middle and not just a beginning and an end? Well, in this fantasy, anything is possible and the evidence Mr Redman presents suggests that such an outcome really is quite possible.

But we are dealing here with the middle class of the Caribbean as the Redmans knew it - people who usually happened to be somewhat tinged with vermilion, though sometimes they had no colour at all, or all the colours, but most of all who upheld the standards of our societies, who cared about culture, the arts, the environment, good government, personal responsibility, clean streets and neat fences, the helpless and needy, honesty, decency, putting one's best foot forward, smiling in the face of personal tragedy, wearing their game legs, arms, and other handicaps as badges of courage. These were the bourgeoisie as they later came to be derisively termed.

The ones who treated the entire Caribbean as one family, who moved freely throughout the region, creating ties of blood and culture. The ones who prided themselves on always doing a good job regardless of remuneration or lack thereof and who knew just how to fight procrastination.

The latter philosophy is exemplified in the play by Mr Redman's "Do It Now" exhortation (no, Nike didn't invent the concept, there was a better version before), but was more elegantly expressed by the penultimate Redman, Makepeace Richmond, the Guyanese sage who coined the term, 'Clown Council', and whose philosophy was "Oh, stop staring at your navel and get on with it"

So, now that we have defined the term, who or what killed the middle class? Mr Redman lays out the evidence but knows his limitations as a pathologist and does not form conclusions.

This question has to be decided by all of us, the members of the jury, based upon a careful consideration of the evidence which was compiled and laid before us by Mr Redman, of Murray Street, Georgetown, and Mr Redman, The Redmen. A fictitious address, you say? That is not an address, Sir, that seems to be part of the evidence.

Was it perhaps that some essential Redmen elements wore Fanonesque masks to cover their skins rouges and were stifled with these? Is that a trace of powder on the evidence table - no, never mind, just a few 'unfortunate black-peppers'. Or were they perhaps squashed in the upward surge as the upper classes retreated and the lower classes raced for the top? Or maybe there was a grand conspiracy involving all the classes, including The Redmen themselves?

Did they perhaps, not liking themselves, incorporate a timed self-destruct feature into their systemic structure? After all, see how flustered they were when British Royalty deigned to partner one of their daughters in a dance.

Or was it a tragic accident which occurred as some Caribbean societies attempted to build that mythical construct, the classless society? Or maybe it was a heinous Imperialist Plot to infiltrate the Region with Technology designed to produce an epidemic of ghetto culture and an addiction to disposable plates and cups and cars and people?

But maybe there was no death at all and Mr Redman was deluded. He was, after all, a tad long in the tooth, and we must not forget that this is theatre, surrealistic theatre at that.

If there is one seeming flaw in this masterpiece it is the apparent existence of a vacuum, which undoubtedly the playwright intended to serve as part of the evidence. The names and photographs of countless eminent Redmen of various hues are laid before us but there is a glaring absence. Where are the I-words? They can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And where is Mr Redman's wife, partly descended from I-words?

This play is based on the Taitt family, a prominent and accomplished Guyanese middle class family, who had all emigrated from Guyana by the early eighties. They are also related by marriage to the Mittelholzer clan, which produced the Guyanese literary giant, Edgar Mittelholzer, a Redman.

Mittelholzer, in his autobiography, A Swarthy Boy, described for us the intricacies of the colour-based caste system of post-war British Guiana. As he observed, the social rungs of the society were occupied in order of nearness to white skin colour or distance therefrom. But there was one group, de facto out-castes, if the expression would be pardoned, who regardless of personal or professional achievement were socially excluded from the pecking order, the I-words, Indians. These included the soon-to-be-legendary Luckhoo family.

Since the playwright would have known this, the small sprinkling of Indians in the account of prominent Redmen must have evidentiary significance. Are we the jury to cast suspicious eyes upon Indians? Is it possible that they were involved in the death of The Redmen?

As one who is of the pure vermilion blood on one side of the family and contaminated by the I-word on the other, I can testify that there certainly was motive. But that testimony should be stricken from the record and, as is usual in a proper court, from the ears and, in this case the eyes, of the jury.

So who, or what, killed The Redmen? If the judge's sentence which follows the delightfully surreal trial at the end of this play can be admitted into evidence and, since this is a fantasy, we may assume that it can, it would appear that the judge is privy to some information that is withheld from us.

Was the deceased really dead or did he shape-shift for a while into an amorphous splintered hydra, melting into bi-chromatic metropolitan societies and into the obscure almshouses, real and figurative, of the Caribbean, awaiting the bugle call that would signal a renascence? After all, we never saw a body.

But the rule of law holds sway in the Caribbean, however swayingly, and with the introduction of this new evidence the jury must again confer. However, if there is any verity to the last hypothesis, then the first few notes have been sounded by this play.

If readers will pardon the use of an heinous Imperialistic word, Woodbine, The Last Of The Redmen, is a terrific play. Well done, and thank you, Mr. Gilkes.

Editor’s note: If anyone has stories of Woodbine House that they would like to share, write same and send to Jocelyn Dow c/o Cara Lodge, 294 Quamina Street, South Cummingsburg, Georgetown.

First publishing rights for this review are the property of Guyana Publications Ltd, publishers of the Stabroek News. The reviewer retains property in any subsequent printing.

(Special Thanks to Elizabeth Alleyne for her permission to republish this article and also for her wonderful poetry which I hope inspires everyone...)

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