“Well…Sometimes. You try hard not to show it. I know they’re just doing what society gives them permission to do. It’s like…You feel like you in a prison. Partly a psychological prison of your own making, so it’s confusing. You have a little bit of freedom as long as you don’t piss off the guards. They watching you. Taunting you. Hoping you make a mistake. It’s the menace, you know what I mean. Because you have to learn to take it. You have to try not to snap…”
The Music and Entertainment Guild of Barbados (M.E.G.O.B) needs to be urgently resurrected for this is the only body that saw fit to award performances in local theater. Were new life to be breathed into the M.E.G.O.B. Awards, I would predict trophies for two outstanding actors and possibly the best play of the year, Simone’s Place by eminent Barbadian playwright, Glenville Lovell.
If this resurrection were to occur, the award for best supporting actor would go to Marcus Myers who beautifully portrays Stuart, the young unabashed gay male whose intense love and power of persuasion moves his mature lover, Gabriel, from the repressed closeted embodiment of a queer society in denial to a point of self-acceptance.
At a time when the Western debate rages on about same-sex marriage and athletes in traditional hyper male sports coming out of the proverbial closet, Lovell skillfully brings the discussion down to a parochial level. He does this by unearthing truths about the invisible world of men who sleep with men (MSM) and go undetected by our society’s judging eyes who, unfortunately, only see the glaringly obvious. For our Caribbean society, it is only true when a man wears a dress and defies his masculinity or if he is visibly too ‘soft’ or remains unmarried well past the age of accepted eligibility. Lovell demystifies and shatters this illusion. Simone’s Place therefore becomes a hideaway and societal refuge for those who are rejected and taunted or even seeking love in all the wrong places.
The character Solace, in her eternal quest for love is brilliantly played by Varia Willams. Her portrayal lifts the slow dirge and excruciating slow pace of the play on opening night at the Frank Collymore Hall. Thirty minutes into act one, Simone’s Place was quickly heading for disaster zone because of stilted dialogue, uncomfortable acting and a plot that was simply not moving fast enough. Fortunately, for us, Williams brought the energy that was needed and lit up the stage with her effervescent character every time she entered the space in search of affection.
The award for Best Supporting Actress would therefore go to Varia Willams for this exceptional portrayal. Perhaps unintentional, but it was her role that captured the essence of all the lives in Simone’s Place — the of solace and solitude. Lady Simone’s place, drowned in the music of Nina Simone, revealed an emotional state of being causing intense emptiness and despair in all of Lovell’s characters. Though, as a whole, we never got the fullness of this crescendo of anguish on the opening night, Lovell gave us enough in his well-crafted script to appreciate that thrust towards escapism. His characters were either fleeing to the big city, away from the village where you can be ridiculed and be called a ‘buller’ (a derogatory term used in Barbados and other Caribbean islands for a gay man) or simply coming to Simone’s Place and hideaway to drown their sorrows in alcohol. Lady Simone, the transgender cabaret performer who also fights her own solitude, becomes the confidante of her friends and customers who share their inner most demons of same-sex attraction and relationship jitters.
Shannon Arthur who plays Simone, shows tremendous potential as an actor and was quite bold to take on such a demanding and central role as his first major stage performance. Through it all, he was convincing enough and in the end, we felt Simone’s pain and anguish as she struggles through the rejection and the unrequited love she feels for Moses.
We become endeared to Moses, the stereotypical artist-type, played quite well by NALA; for he represents that West Indian male who is afraid to say ‘it’…the it of love and compassion, the it of tenderness. As an alpha male, to say ‘it’ would emasculate you and make you less of a man before your peers. God forbid if you are like Pecong the fisherman, acted brilliantly by Simon Alleyne, who rejects his same-sex feelings and becomes the self-deprecating all abusive exaggerated male.
John Hunte who played Gabriel, the older domineering lover of Stuart, though convincing, lost some of his key words on opening night owing to his unclear diction.
In closing, it was hard to derail such a well-crafted play but some of the choices of the director, Russell Watson, remain questionable. As Simone’s Place really only took place visibly in a single space, at times, the actors were made to look awkward because there was nothing for them to do, especially with their hands. This, together with the stilted speech contributed to the play’s slow movement. Luckily, Leandro Soto’s set design added to the realism sought after by both Watson and Lovell.
In the end, Soto’s walls are broken down, Pecong’s cap is removed from his face and Moses takes off his shades that represented the masks he and others wear throughout life’s journey. We come away with a sense that Lovell was able to make a strong statement to encourage our society to open its eyes and see clearly, what is around us, to release its prisoners and set them free. Free to live truth, free to love and most importantly, free to escape from the retreat of their self-imposed state of solitude and find solace through self-acceptance.
This review was written by Ian Walcott, contributing writer to The Burton Wire. He is an international relations specialist and project consultant who shuttles between the Caribbean and Brazil.