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Dancehall Highlights Social Strife in Dennis Scott's Dog
Trevor Nairne’s dancehallesque adaptation of Dennis Scott’s fantastic fable Dog is rife with sweet possibilities. The School of Drama production never lives up to many of those possibilities, but the planted seeds are enough to produce an enjoyable, meaningful version of a classic Jamaican play.
Last week Sunday’s staging of Dog (Sunday, October 23, 2016) was used to mark the official launch of the Edna Manley College’s 40th anniversary celebrations. Dog was in many ways a fine selection to mark the occasion. The play come’s from one of the region’s best playwrights and underscore’s the role of the arts in examining the society.
The play’s tagline, “when society gone to the daawgs” underpins the basic premise of the play. Much like Orwell’s Animal Farm, Dog creates a world populated by animals, in this case dogs. But although they are all dogs, in this world, it isn’t even a case that some dogs are more equal than others. This is a world of rife inequality and injustice, as the haves are pitted violently against the have-nots, although the difference between one dog and another simply comes down to language and possessions, as the dogs squabble for the right and privilege to act like men. Of course, this squabble over differences that are merely a matter of perception, the prejudice, need for violence and vengeance, mark both kinds of dog as intrinsically human.
Dog clearly reflects the era in which it was authored (1974) when the upper class was regularly fleeing violence and democratic socialism in Jamaica. Most of the play takes place in an upper-class home and shows both the paranoia about violence, as well as the ways in which despite the pretensions about the divide when it comes down to base needs they are all just dogs.
Nairne riddles the play with Dancehall and reggae songs and riddims, using them to create the pulse and energy for the play as well as directing some of the meaning and emotion. Prior to its opening, Junior Gong’s ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ and Peter Tosh’s ‘Equal Rights and Justice’ set the tone.
By using Dancehall as the lens through which to interpret the play’s vision of society, Nairne further enriches Scott’s social analysis, as the ‘noise’, violence and amplified sexuality of dancehall, which is denigrated by the powerful elite, is used to highlight the social schisms tearing the society apart.
Paul Newman undertakes the role of choreographing the movement, and what he creates is energetic and works well with the music. However, Dog’s ethos would have benefitted greatly from a more insightful interpretation of the physical linguistics of Dancehall, which would have further strengthened the play’s meaning, message, and mood.
Yet Dog struggles mainly because the student actors are unable to peel back the multiplicity of layers that make up the play’s meaning, and subtlety is largely beyond them. Despite that, the performances are not terrible. Jason Richards makes a reasonably engaging narrator/DJ, and Ronique Stewart’s performance as Mommy, is uneven but she shows great promise. So too does Yohan Reynolds as Finger.
Neither the set (designed by Bryony May Kummer-Seddon) nor costumes are particularly striking and the play’s reliance on projected images to indicate location, is probably the greatest signal of their failure.
Even so, this latest rendition of Dog is worth watching, and the message is worth repeating. Scott’s vision is not nearly so dark as an Orwellian one, so Dog ends on a note of hope, although when one realizes that it’s truism are still relevant to Jamaica over three decades later, it seems that hope may be unfounded. We still live in a country where we rip at each other with the mindless savagery of wild dogs, or maybe it’s those well socialized, well-dressed dogs we should fear. Those who visit their violence from well-walled enclaves of privilege. As Scott clearly indicates, whether the class views itself as a ‘dog’ or a ‘daawg’ unless they can see their common humanity, all is lost, it is after all, a dog-tear-dog-mercilessly-apart-world.