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Whiplash - Crackles with Political Potency

Sweetie (Shanique Brown) cradles Dennis (Brian Johnson)

Jamaica is yet to recover from the political violence spawned in the late 1960s that in a sense peaked in the bloody 1980 elections which drowned the country in a sea of blood. The political divisiveness, creation of garrison communities and dominance of dons were born from this era.  Ginger Knight’s Whiplash, currently being staged by the University Players, under direction of Dr. Brian Heap, explores those turbulent times. However Whiplash is more about power than violence, presenting a window through which to examine the symbiotic relationship among poverty, violence and power.

Whiplash, set in a single room house in Kingston, takes place over several years in the 1970s. Its references to The Harder They Come and The Green Bay Massacre add to its authenticity and are used to mark hope and turmoil respectively. Dennis (played by Brian Johnson) and Alton (played by Aston Spencer) are brothers on the verge of manhood. When the play opens they are wrapped in euphoria from a football victory. However, without skills and armed with only basic education they are soon sucked into political and gang rivalry.

Nadean Rawlins (Miss Inez) and Shanique Brown (Sweetie) dominate the productionThe set is largely symbolic. Concrete blocks outline the marker of the small house in which the three live. The corrugated zinc sheets dangling at different levels form the larger backdrop, suggesting that the zinc is more than a boundary marker for the yard, but is a part of the cycle of poverty and violence that keeps them imprisoned. However, in confining the set largely to the center of the stage, the action feels far too constrained, especially in the early stages of the play.

The production benefits from a good cast. The four-hander also features Nadean Rawlins as Miss Inez and Shanique Brown as Sweetie. The play’s structure suggests that it is Dennis and Alton’s story, (with greater emphasis on Dennis) but the production is completely dominated by Rawlins and Brown.

Rawlins delivers a powerful performance. Interestingly, Miss Inez is in the same mother archetype as Joceyln whom Rawlins played in Basil Dawkins’ Where Is My Father, which earned her the 2012 Actor Boy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, while the two characters are similar types, the have important differences and  Rawlins manages to tap into the significant differences between the two women. Her portrayal of Miss Inez is a gripping tour de force, a fascinating look at a woman desperately trying to save her sons even while some of her decisions sends them along the path she wants them to avoid.

Sweetie is a beautifully drawn complex character and Brown does her justice. Brown particularly shines when playing directly against Rawlins and displays tremendous potential with this role. Though she is less adept at giving an engaging portrayal of the younger Sweetie, her overall performance is quite strong.

Johnson, is a competent and talented actor. Unfortunately, as with Who a Di Don he is unable to give an authentic portrayal. However, he needs a stronger hand to guide him toward accessing nuance. He delivers a worthwhile performance, but tends toward overacting when he needs to be dramatic or brutal. Spencer on the other hand is decent, but doesn’t manage to fully tap into the strength of his character.

Whiplash displays great dramatic integrity and the characters are well drawn and authentic, but is not without flaws. A main weakness is its exploration of the role and treatment of women in Jamaican society, most evident through Sweetie. Whiplash is far too silent about her. She has her first child at about age 15, but that is never seen as problematic. Additionally, she never has any say about Dennis’ violence toward her or why she stayed with him. Alton (Aston Spencer), Dennis (Brian Johnson) and Sweetie (Shanique Brown) share a laugh

Interestingly, the emotional depth of Sweetie and Inez betrays Knight’s fascination with these characters. Sweetie and Miss Inez are only examined in as much they are relevant to the men in their lives, be they lovers or children. Alton and Dennis are allowed individual aspirations that are totally about them, but neither Sweetie nor Miss Inez are given that. The accuracy of Knight’s and the actors portrayal of these women only makes the silence about these issues more disturbing.

Their issues are swept under the rug as he strides purposefully toward his goal, a large political statement. Whiplash shows that while Jamaica had been led into independence by men who understood their role in leading the entire nation, the democratic process had since been hijacked by politicians consumed with pursuing power at all costs. Their soldiers are then the very men they dominate, who, robbed of economic agency turn to violence to get some semblance of power, which is at best fleeting and usually ends in their demise.

Whiplash has a dismal end, but its message is not hopeless. Knight suggests that the poor are powerless because in their unrelenting quest for survival they are unable to unite and give over their power to others. The spiral is made even more turbulent as violence is appropriated to replace the lost power.

Whiplash is currently playing at the Phillip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts for a limited run. It closes on Sunday, October 14, 2012.