Watching An Echo in the Bone is like hearing a faint rumbling in the distant clouds, only to jump when a thunderclap goes off right above your head. I walked in expecting the themes of enslavement and disenfranchisement to apply to "us" in the general sense. But somewhere in the process, it begins to be about us as individuals too. And talking to Timmia Hearn Feldman, the play's director and the new assistant creative director at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW), confirmed that.
Half Trini and half Israeli, Hearn Feldman said Echo is the perfect way to creatively express her own complicated history in T&T, since it is not only her history but the history of the entire country. "It's this mixed story of all these strange mixed people," Feldman said. "This is TTW's first production in a long time. And we want to do not just entertainment for entertainment's sake, but also entertainment for the sake of exploring. So as we celebrate Emancipation and Independence, it felt like a very relevant show."
Originally set in Jamaica, this reading of the play replaces the action in a similar Trinidad village, and tweaks the dialogue to sound more Trini while retaining all the same issues that simmer in the cauldron of any West Indian postcolonial slave-based society. Trying to explain the play chronologically won't work, so I won't even try. It begins with an end-"This is the house ah de dead"-a wake for Crew, a mysterious man who never appears on stage except in spirit. His tortured soul possesses his son, Sonson, who acts out brief scenes of his father's struggle for life and dignity.
But it's not just Sonson who acts as a channel for the spirits of the past. All Crew's mourners congregate, then go into a collective trance as different spirits possess them, using them as vessels to give a picture of their histories; scenes in which the actors transition from black and white ancestors, to themselves again, playing out the years and hours that lead up to Crew's death.
Most of the vignettes are unrelated and seem almost random, but they give the viewer a crisp understanding of just how complicated relationships were during slavery, simply because people are never wholly evil or wholly pure, never either black or white.
Each of the characters has a history: slaves crowded onto a stinking ship in the middle passage; an experienced white slave-buyer who buys sisters, one for housekeeping and another for breeding.
News of the Emancipation proclamation comes in the form of a message from a doctor to a sick slave owner. "Free? What does that mean? Who's going to look after them like I do?" the slave owner, played by Glenn Davis, says pitifully. The slave woman he calls "Girl" hovers in the background, concerned for his welfare, although he can't even remember her name.
The only one who does not go into trance is Rachel, Crew's wife. She's a ritualistic touchstone, a role that contrasts sharply with her very human failings, exposed near the play's climax. Rachel organises the wake; she alone knows why Crew murdered a white man, an unforgivable crime for a black man in the 1930s. And she carries palpable anguish for the dead, for her sons and for herself, each time she speaks.
As Rachel, Evelyn Caesar-Munroe is riveting. Her voice is probably hoarse through a combination of illness and too many rehearsals, but it carries a depth of pain, the sound of someone who has wept too hard for too long. Rachel's sins make it easy for the audience to try to blame her rather than Crew for the murder he commits. But as Caesar-Munroe puts it, we can't judge Rachel's actions until we walk in her shoes and know what it is like to make a choice between morality and survival.
"I identify with Rachel because Rachel is a very real character in society. For peace's sake, she will do whatever she has to do to preserve her family," Caesar-Munroe added. "If we're really honest, there are lots of Rachels walking around in our society. We can't look down on the Rachels and the Crews, because they have the right to be in this world too. What is our history trying to tell us, and why is it ricocheting into today's society?"
Yale School of Drama MFA student Winston Duke as Sonson/Crew makes his debut on a Trinidad stage in Echo. He's Tobago-born, but raised in the US from age ten, and his American accent did slip out a few times, but his presence onstage is masterful. He moves from Sonson's angry adolescent awkwardness to Crew's desperate, rum-soaked staggering without missing a beat, using his six feet-plus to dominate the stage.
Duke's reading of Crew's final request to Master Charlie is nakedly vulnerable, holding the audience captive in a broken man's final bid for freedom. And as Crew, Duke has some of the most beautiful lines in the play, about what it means to no longer be a slave but still not be free: "The land is everything! My father and grandfather sweat ...This is my birthright, to say I am not a slave any more!"
"I not going to jail for this," he says after his crime. "I suffer too long-300 years." But this is not a play that depends on the performance of star boys or girls. The characters never leave the wake/stage until the bitter end, even though many of the vignettes only require two or three of the ten-member cast. So the unity of the cast is vital to the survival and movement of the story. And the cast's ability to work as a body onstage is one of the best things about this play; movements and reactions are almost instinctive, intuitive.
In addition, each character shines briefly: Arnold Goindhan, as the vulgar Dreamboat, transforms into the painfully correct enslaved man who sells slaves on his master's behalf. Michael Cherrie is as powerfully cruel as Master Charlie as he is amiable as a villager called Stone. Bridgit (Taromi Joseph) gives a compelling argument for why she chose one brother over the other: "I doh have anything. But I have the right to answer no."
And first-time actor Idrees Saleem makes a strong showing as Jacko and as a hissing, hostile runaway slave. Figuring out the play's subplots will keep you engaged right up to the climax. And in the dark theatre, as you watch all of our histories brought to life, you may-as Caesar-Munroe suggested you should-find yourself in a character onstage, bringing home the echo in the bone. "And if I do see me, am I happy? Can I respect the person that I see?" Munroe asked.
TTW's last performance of An Echo in the Bone will be staged today at the Central Bank Auditorium. See the Arts Diary for ticket information.