Tuesday 13 December 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: A Hero's Welcome

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 50: Winsome Pinnock’s A Hero’s Welcome (1989)

I read this play in a collection called Six Plays by Black and Asian Women Writers edited by Kadija George. In her introduction and Valerie Small’s short essay on ‘The Importance of Oral Tradition to Black Theatre’ (marred by some clumsy typos in the titles of a couple plays), they argue that black theatre is constantly maturing and experimenting with form and structure, redefining what we mean when we talk about theatre. Referring particularly to African theatre, Small points out that dramatic tradition doesn’t always involve a written text and a theatre building. In this anthology, however, we are offered six texts, ranging from screenplays to radio plays. Some involve poetry which, when performed on the radio, become a ‘tapestry of sound’. Some would argue that the issue with anthologies devoted to female playwrights, as with female poets, is that it implies that their work is somewhat ‘other’ and perhaps lesser to that of the implied norm of male playwrights or white playwrights. Nevertheless, an anthology such as this handily collates and promotes these works.

The play, first performed at the Royal Court Upstairs, is a story of young love, magic and shattered dreams in the West Indies in the aftermath of WWII. Wanting to find love, three friends, Minda, Sis and Ishbel ask the elderly Nana to help them find their true loves. She gives them a spell in which they have to burn something belonging to the person they want to be with and whisper some words. Meanwhile Len, who Sis likes, has just returned home from helping in the war with a limp and heroic tales of surviving gun battle and seeing friends being shot. These are enough to inspire young Charlie to pretend he’s a soldier and spend all night decoding enemy signals. On this stormy island there is a great sense of stasis. Some people are happy to stay on it such as Sis: ‘It’s my home. I’ll grow old and die right here on this island, in this district’. Len too, now he’s returned from England, believes that ‘we got a duty to work, to make something of this world here by ourselves’. Others, however, want to get off the island with Minda being the most restless. She yearns to leave the island or to be better off than she was growing up. Her plan to marry the man whose house she cleans fails when he dies whilst they’re having sex in the barn behind his wife’s back. She then marries Len much to Sis’ dismay but soon grows tired of her life with him and Nana. Eventually, she is drawn by an offer to go to London with someone else, escaping in the night. For her, England represents a better and wealthier life, but one can’t help but wonder the realities that Minda and Stanley would face when they get off the boat. Indeed, Len later confides in Sis that his time in England (actually working in Liverpool during the war) was met with a piece of machinery falling on his foot, and racial conflicts.

Rich characters and often poetic dialogue written in a West Indies dialect makes this play so captivating. There are echoes of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I would argue, in Pinnock’s use of nature, as well as foreshadowing of Roy Williams’ play The Gift (2000) in its exploration of the spiritual. Pinnock’s play, though, offers a centralising of a perhaps often marginalised setting that shows that the monstrosities and effects of WWII were not exclusive to Europe.

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