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Ratoon - Well-Intentioned But Disappointing

Erna Brodber's Ratoon staged by the Edna Manley College

Erna Brodber’s play Ratoon is a clear relative of the celebrated writer’s seminal novel Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home though it is obviously not quite an adaptation. Jane and Louisa is a complex novel that is a hard to understand. Once you get there, however, the rich sociological insight and the innovative narrative structure make it worth the effort. Ratoon is a much simpler work, alas, it is also far less rewarding.

The play was recently staged by students of the School of Drama, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, under direction from Carolyn Allen. It is the kind of play that Allen enjoys, one that is earnest and intent on social change. 

Ratoon is a well-intentioned play, trying to bring attention to ideas of a new Jamaica, and the changes required in the society. It was a decent attempt at what was described as forum theatre, trying to get the audience involved in not merely the action but the resolution of the play. 

A Chorus of 'Four Fat Women'Allen highlighted this audience/players integration, by making the warm-up a part of the production as well as placing some of the seating on the stage and some of the action among the audience. The play used a basic, symbolic set, and most of the characters took on multiple roles.

The use of ‘Four Fat Women’ as kind of chorus, is a commendable element, and a useful device to show that everyone is capable of doing good and helping their community, even those we often dismiss as disposable. 

However, along with struggling under the weight of occasionally engaging, but largely mediocre performances, Ratoon’s major problem is its script.Ratoon juxtaposes the different cultural ideologies

To produce this (almost) new work, Brodber ripped the heart out of Jane and Louisa. Although the novel dealt with issues of race, class and culture it was gender that brought it all together. While gender is not completely missing it is largely subsumed in the discussion about class and race. To further complicate that, the play makes a last-ditch effort to engage with masculinity and balance out the gender discussion, but this only makes the play more uneven.

So although Ratoon commendably translated the use of folk songs, one of the motif’s of the novel, and brought with it some of the characters and even their dialogue, it left behind the keen exploration of gender, and when it did so, the story lost its focus.

Additionally, the Nellie of this story is a far less engaging heroine than the one who inhabited the novel. 

Allen's staging invites the audience into the play by putting them on the stage with the actionRatoon attempts to suggest that the island is caught in a vicious cycle where tragedies keep replicating themselves from one generation to the next. It is a statement worth making, and certainly one that should be heeded. 

Unfortunately, in theatre, as in life, being well-intentioned is not enough. The story meanders about with several scenes, even some of its more entertaining ones, having no discernible point. 

Ratoon was recently staged at the Denis Scott Studio Theatre, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Kingston.