At a time when the Barbados government has just made an about-turn with its policy of free education for its citizens, two recent Barbadian graduates from the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination (EBCCI), Matthew Murrell and Janell Mitchell, have teamed up to write and direct, respectively, a riveting piece of theater, “Back Slap Alley.” The Murrell-Mitchell duo has proven that their time at the EBCCI was well spent.
Back Slap Alley was part of the 2014 UWI Humanities Festival and anyone familiar with Murrell’s impressive growth as a writer/thespian will soon realize his signature of shock therapy, at least against the backdrop of a self-proclaiming Christian society like Barbados that prides itself on Victorian conservatism. Murrell takes pride in causing theatrically induced seizures through his signature gritty, hyper-realistic, unnuanced shock therapy that explores the social underbelly of our apparently ‘perfect tapestry.’
Three dysfunctional couples living side by side may clearly be a case of art imitating life in Murrell’s estimation.
Barbados’ well knitted, ‘perfect tapestry’ is soon ripped to pieces as the social putrid pus of domestic abuse, jealousy, insecurity and bullying are fully exposed in the Alley. Bull Dog, as his name suggests, suddenly appears on the scene as a reverse femme fatale to upset what appears to be stable instability. Until such time, Mary and Jasper, played convincingly by Tamara Straker and John Hunte, were quite content to run their neighborhood variety shop and bar while keeping the ‘business’ of their relationship quite private. This all changes when Jasper finds a new confidante in his new neighbor, Ryan, played by Akeem Cumberbatch, who also becomes his new assistant. Having to admit that he suffers abuse at the mighty hand and cou-cou stick of Mary was perhaps the most herculean of tasks for Jasper who was totally emasculated in front of his daughter and the audience.
Murrell further explores society’s deafening silence on domestic abuse and violence in a somewhat clichéd same-sex relationship between the thug Bull Dog, played by Deevon Clinton and his abused transvestite concubine, Terri. At times, the latter role interpreted by Kerry Rollins definitely entered the unfortunate realm of ham acting. Though the climax of such an intense abusive relationship was predictable, the plot would have been all-the-more interesting and twisting if the thug was at the passive end of the sexual relationship. Now, that would be shock therapy, Mr. Murrell. Clinton, as a young actor, must also be careful not to fall into Murrell’s trap of typecasting him.
In the end, though entertaining, some walked away with the sense that Murrell’s work was incomplete and did not reach its required literary resolution. I beg to differ.
For the denouement clearly showed Terri as the central victim of the pathological cycle of social and sexual abuse. It was Terri who suffered mistreatment, social isolation and ultimately a violent death. Was Murrell making a statement against ongoing homophobia? Is he sympathetic toward these X-men and women who amble aimlessly among us in our perfect tapestry? I cried not for Rollins’ hammed interpretation but for all the ‘Terries’ of this world who are hated and despised in life and even in death. Terri represents all those social outcasts who are left center stage alone as the final lights go down on their lives.
I say, well done to the team of Back Slap Alley and the EBCCI ought to be proud of its students and graduates. Keep producing and proving the government wrong for taking away its investment in the education of our youth by bringing forth complex and compelling theatrical events.
Ian Walcott is a contributing writer to The Burton Wire. He is an international relations specialist and project consultant who shuttles between the Caribbean and Brazil.