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UTT theatre students take on Genet's Graduating with The Maids

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sex and violence, whether presented visually, or on the page or stage, always generate intense reactions. When you add comedy, philosophy, the absurd, surrealism and the dynamics of power, (domination and submission) to the intial coupling, you’ve created a lethally explosive cocktail, in this case Jean Genet’s drama The Maids. Last performed in Trinidad over 30 years ago, The Maids makes a timely return when the first cohort of UTT’s Theatre Arts graduands present Genet’s controversial and highly challenging play, for a limited weekend run at the Little Carib Theatre, starting Friday April 4. 


The production is the final Senior Project Practicum, the penultimate assessment (followed by a One-Man show thesis in May) at the end of the first Theatre Arts four-year BA course. Previous end of semester productions by students include Willi Chen’s Freedom Road, the Shakepeare comedy As You Like It, Mustapha Matura’s Three Sisters and the Cuban absurdist drama Night of the Assassins.


Whatever their previous experience, nothing can have prepared the young actors and stage crew for the demands of Genet’s script, judiciously chosen by Belinda Barnes head of UTT’s Theatre Arts department and directed by Mervyn de Goeas. 


Initially there seems little common ground between a play written by a white Frenchman which premiered in 1947, and the UTT graduands. Closer inspection reveals themes and issues still searingly current in the neo-colonial postmodern Caribbean, where sex, violence and the absurd have been uneasy bedfellows from the time of Columbus’ coming.


Based on a true murder case from 1930s France (in which two sisters gouged out the eyes and then hammered to death their haughty mistress and her daughter), The Maids ventures into a fantasy world of sado-masochism and homoeroticism, a play within a play, fired by the hatred and self-hatred of the oppressed. 


Domestic slaves, sisters Claire and Solange, much like the ex-slaves of the nineteenth century Jamette carnival, enact in their subversive and transgressive role play of their relations with their hateful and hated mistress, much of the psychopatholgy Franz Fanon charted. The problematics of domination and submission (sexual and social in the play, rather than racial), “Otherness” and identity, homoeroticism and incest all simmer in the contemporary Caribbean psyche, as much as they do in Genet’s script. 


As truth (ever a trump for reality) would have it, Genet was more of a social outcast than his maids. The illegitimate son of a prostitute who abandoned him, the stridently homosexual Genet served time for petty theft before military service in Morocco, Algeria and Syria and peripatetic cross-dressing prostitution through the cities of southern Europe and his subsequent metamorphosis into the darling of the French existentialist intelligentsia, with his debut novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), penned during another prison spell. 


Much like his equally inflammatory play The Blacks, The Maids with its convolutions of fantasy and its play within a play, questions assumptions about what constitutes drama, which makes it an ideal exercise for aspiring actors. Although director de Goeas, like many before him has ignored Genet’s original instructions that the female roles be played by boys (Karian Ford, Kemlon Nero and Aryana Mohammed retain their gender) he admits to being as challenged by the script as his actors; “Genet is confusing and complex…it’s like a Chinese box puzzle, so surrealist and absurdist and yet rooted in reality.” 


Faced with the prospect of “birthing a whole new generation of actors” de Goeas is intrigued by his students’ future employability (“Nobody wants directors or actors, they’re a dime a dozen”). Having survived the wilderness of T&T’s theatreland for more decades than he’d probably like to remember, de Goeas insists the students be ready for the most menial and frustrating aspects of life on and offstage, all part of the process. 


Directorially, he’s focused on getting the student actors to access and utilise their own life experience, a strategy they appreciate, as Karian Ford says: “It’s good to have a director who values your opinion, who’s interested in ‘what do you have to bring’ to the production.” Karian also points out that The Maids brings a new type of drama to the time-worn local repertoire of farce and comedy. “There are new actors, new faces and the novel experience of absurdist theatre.” 


If Genet’s volatile concoction presented by those who are coming to come is insufficient inducement, then free entry to this fantastic psychodrama must surely be a clincher.


Bookings begin tomorrow at the Little Carib.


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