Raunchy and revealing, the burlesque musical Buss de Mark played for two nights last week at the Big Black Box, Woodbrook. The production was a staged reading of a work in progress written by Zeleca Julien and Alexander Johnson. It was put on by the gender and sexual minorities organisation I am One. Members and allies of the T&T lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community comprised the ensemble cast, who are also credited as co-writers.
The production was the culmination of I am One's inaugural month long Pride Arts Festival.
The play is subtitled A soca, dancehall, calypso, chutney musical comedy all about family in Trinidad. Director Timmia Hearn, in remarks to the audience after the show, said the work was meant to give local queers an alternative to the dominant media characterisations shown in US cultural products like the Broadway play and film Rent. T&T queers have their own ways and this show sought to portray them.
Hinging on the conceit of the game of whe whe–the indigenous, illegal form of the State-run gambling franchise Play Whe–the play's four main storylines showed various aspects of the underground world of T&T queers. Musical motifs, like the play's eponymous original theme song, further united the action of the two-hour work.
One central story was the rivalry between a lesbian community leader, soca star Shane, and a bad-john closeted gay politician, MP Benedict. Another was the sham marriage of shalwar-wearing gay man Prikash, a pipe contractor, and his butch lesbian wife Zion, a manager of soca singers. A third story revolved around Maxi Man, a flamboyantly gay maxi taxi driver.
Music was one of the play's strengths. Original compositions and arrangements alternated with satirical revisions of existing songs like Andre Tanker's Basement Party. Some of these soared; the musical battle between the pro-box drain women supporting politician Benedict and the pro-pipe men working for Prikash drew a well-earned round of applause from Thursday's audience. "You can't lay pipe," the women sang to the tune of Kitchener's Toco Band. "Who tell you so?" the men rejoined, "pipe have to lay!"
The original works by musical director Joseph Lopez show great promise; I particularly enjoyed Benedict and Shane's duet When Men Threaten Me: "When men threaten me hell does come down," Benedict sweetly sang, "I go kill your whole family one by one."
Buss de Mark made its first appearance last year at the same space as a staged reading, billed as a Calypso Cabaret. Some of the cast from that reading returned in this iteration, more fleshed out. One such character was the city panty vendor Jemma, a gray-haired granny who in one scene admits to Maxi Man that she has had lesbian proclivities herself. That line, too risqu� to reproduce in a national newspaper, was a hilarious understatement delivered with superb comic timing. It was one of several gems in the play.
Another gem came from Vagrant, a homeless beggar played by co-author Zeleca Julien. With the preface "All protocols observed," she launched into a speech extolling the virtues of KFC while standing by the cashier buying a dinner special.
There is no doubt the script has a ways to go before the piece can be called ready. Plot holes abound. For example, though the enmity between Shane and Benedict is based on the former blaming the latter for her brother's death, the audience is never privy to any details of the backstory.
And burlesque tendencies notwithstanding, the characterisations are such broadly comic stereotypes that at times it is difficult for one to reconcile the work with its producers' intentions.
I left Thursday's performance wondering for whom the play is intended. To a primarily LGBTQI audience, such as the one attending the June 30 show, the plot points and characterisations would come across as humour based on old, familiar types.
The violent lesbian gangster, the duplicitous gay politician, the closeted young church boy all make appearances in a script which draws laughs from its liberal use of T&T's stock of gay stereotypes.
But using such stereotypes does not advance the discourse around T&T LGBTQI people and lifestyles, and a straight person unfamiliar with that world would only find his or her own prejudices reinforced. In this play, all gay men are raucous and oversexed like the Maxi Man; all lesbians are mannish and abusive like Shane the soca star; and the whole LGBTQI community is only interested in sex, weed and bacchanal.
No script can be all things to all people. It might be asking too much of a work with its origins in a cabaret show to give nuanced depictions of a population that is as diverse as it is misunderstood. However, I am afraid if the audience is broader, it won't be laughing with but at the community the show is supposed to represent.
Photos used with this story are reproduced with the courtesy of Ulelli Verbeke, an LGBTQI activist from Guyana who attended the Pride Arts Festival to do a photo series called Out of the Box–Gender Expression.