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Magic and Mayhem in Patrick Brown’s Duppy Whisperer

Patrick Brown's Duppy Whisperer conjures humour & class politics from obeah

It would not have been surprising if audience members at Wednesday’s staging of Patrick Brown’s Duppy Whisperer had left post production, wheeling or issuing salts as proverbial guards against the conjurings they had witnessed. That of course, were they not otherwise contemplative and still in fits of laughter.

The Jambiz production, currently mounted at the Centerstage Theatre in Kingston is simultaneously humorous and hair-raising, qualities that feel organically achieved through the natural/unforced language of the script, as well as the purposeful co-direction of Brown and Trevor Nairne, all amplified by expert performances and above average special effects.

A case of porcelain cats and high pretensions prevail in The Duppy WhispererObeah Comes to Uptown

Uptown Kingston is thrown off balance and made to face its prejudices when Duppy Whisperer, Seefus Jonas or Dr. Seefur, an enterprising obeah man from rural St. Thomas, moves into the Waterworks community and disrupts its lavish routine. Taking advantage of the city’s untapped obeah market, Seefus (Glen Campbell) and wife Adassa (Camille Davis) must negotiate the new space, even as their standout presence earns them the community’s contempt.

When neighbours, the prim actress, Sky (Sakina Deer), her law student husband Coby (Courtney Wilson) and their helper, the hopscotch-minded Gerda (Sharee Elise) visit, Adassa believes they are finally being welcomed to the community, but this is not so, and the schemes within schemes lead to a riotous plot.Sakina Deer as Sky and her husband Coby

The production strategically injects timely commentary about contemporary culture, sending jabs and insight throughout without being excessive.  Conflicts also abound as relationships, statuses and cultures clash, Seefus’ credibility comes into question and the house becomes truly haunted by these and the stuff of other worlds.

Class and Cultures Clash

Though The Duppy Whisperer makes full use of humour, it is not overdone, nor is the play without sober lessons and critiques. Central to this is its use of obeah, a most misunderstood, and often reviled cultural form, to make critical statements about society. In the main, the word may elicit fear, in some cases comedy, as obeah is viewed by many as synonymous with witchcraft. With its origins in African spirituality and magic, and little in the way of wide-spread knowledge about it, it is not surprising or uncommon for confusion, fear and speculation to prevail. Position such a bull in the china shop of the upper echelon, with its predominantly Eurocentric leanings and eruptions are bound to follow. Such a mash-up of culture bounds through The Duppy Whisperer, as uptown scrambles to hold fast to its uniformity, and the vibrant whisperer and his assistant are challenged to stay true to themselves, disrupting all efforts at taming or confinement.

The strategic positioning of the Jonas’ home as well, complete with tall bamboo flagpoles on their front lawn (as revealed by their kind neighbours), immediately and significantly makes a stark distinction between themselves and the traditionally plush community they now occupy. This effectively communicates a raised social standing with challenges, and foreshadows a conflict between themselves and their neighbours, the latter keen on maintaining their ‘community standards’ and property values.  This illustration and critique is an important one, especially in the Caribbean and wider social context, where social stratification and attendant exclusion syndromes, continue to prevail.

The saga takes place in the Jonas’ living/dining room, which lends a similar contrast to the tale. The neat, tastefully designed home, with high chandeliered ceiling, stairs to a higher level, and solid furniture and fittings, would not in itself give off the dark, eerie obeah man sense the onlooker might’ve come to expect, but these expectations are met with a profusion of countless vials of oils and potions, flags, a skull, Bible and the hoards of candles that also populate the space. This sharp gap between space, occupant and the attendant accoutrements stands as a strong message about the loss of a sense of belonging.

 Glen Cambpell's Dr. Seefur seems unable to see the trouble brewing in his crystal ball

Duppy Dynamics

The roles and performances are dynamic and rich, with characters often, if not entirely, going to and from extremes of themselves. The eccentric Gerda is among the starkest of these, and one could get lost trailing her, partly in confusion as to what her ailment might be, for she certainly must have one. She is young but occupies an aged countenance and dress, and is almost always contorted in frustration or annoyance. She captures attention in violent vocal outbursts when speaking to others, but holds us more when she veers off in erratic engagements with self or some invisible friend. Mostly though, she seems harmless, until we learn otherwise. In this way Sharee Elise’s skills go on display, effectively showcasing the breadth of the character, who is later, a renewed, more certain and engaged Gerda, and not nearly as absent-minded or innocent as she might’ve let on.

Undercover Detective Sheg Up, whose name alone is insight into some subtle yet distinct ways in which the play injects its humour, is played by David Crossgill, who enters to investigate reports regarding the Jonas family. The stout figure, stuffed into high-waisted knee-length pants, complete with wild dreadlocks tussling under a tam, numerous guns strapped to his body, and constant hunger, tells a sloppy tale, and is humorous but of little help, and so, even in his exaggeration, he is also an unsettling and all too real portrayal.

Sakina Deer goes full throttle as well in the role of Sky, the showy drama queen, complete with all the makings of the well-off. Hers is a prissy existence, and she doesn’t miss the opportunity to wield her power and position over others, especially her underachieving husband, who is contstantly dismissed. Naturally, onlookers want to dislike her, but are soon made to feel pity, and later to relate closely and see beyond her initial pretences, as an ironic, if more meaningful reality emerges.

Dr. Seefur is marked by untamed, bulging eyes and erratic facial expressions. Together, with classic Glen Campbell animation, the performance makes for a captivating, humorous meeting.  His fate is intertwined with Adassa’s, who plays a semi-devout assistant to his obeah schemes.  Davis’ portrayal is purposefully restricted, and we find her constantly seeking a better existence and acceptance. Further strength is arrived at when she plays one of two resurrected maroon spirits later on.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the tale and the voices which occupy it, and Seefus and Gerda especially, must learn the greatest of them.

Sharee Elise gives a dynamic performance as the "hop-scotch minded" gerda

Couple Conflicts

Relationship conflicts factor significantly throughout, as the two main marriages show signs of all but smoldering before the audience. Both pairs, through their rough interactions, tell of tired, contemptuous unions. So stark is this that one wonders at the tendency to endure; a sense of security perhaps, in the case of Sky and Coby, and maybe the fear of falling victim to Seefus’ sleight of hand, in Adassa’s case. 

Theatrics

Scare tactics reign hence forth, as the faux antics we meet initially are literally blown out the window by what appears a real supernatural power. The production does not go overboard with this display, which is still thorough and effective. Lighting and sound are amplified; from eerie well-timed music, to flickering or dim lights, screeching and of course, lightning and a thunderstorm.  The piece saves on gore, except for pale, misshapen zombie-like figures appearing during a moment of high intensity -  a move, more puzzling than scary, that came across ill-placed, if not entirely unnecessary. Appearances, disappearances, ancestors descending from above, the slamming of windows and doors through telekinesis, all happen before the live awe-struck audience.

The Duppy Whisperer is rich with twists, but easy to follow, and stays clear in its direction and flow. It is a cohesive production, with dynamic and captivating performances, replete with well-timed, natural comedy and at the same time, issuing critical lessons.

The theatrics become almost secondary in the grand scheme, as one is made reflective on the points of self worth, acceptance, and the importance of culture and heritage, even in the face of discrimination. Add the fact of having these components manifest in a character previously opposed to them and it makes for a startlingly effective picture.

One does well to be attentive, for there is much to be revealed and missed if not viewed closely, and there is at least one duppy still roaming Waterworks today, from not being wary.