Very popular in the 1970s and 1980s, roots plays (Jamaican sex farces) lost popularity for a while, but now they seem to be making a comeback.
Over the weekend, I saw one of the four or five currently on our stages, the RBT Productions presentation of Garfield Reid’s Set Up, at Crown Playhouse, Molynes Road.
Roots plays have remained consistent over the decades in two key areas, the content and acting style. They always focus on sexual activity (mainly of the illicit kind) and deception (of many kinds) among our poor and uneducated classes, and the acting remains exaggerated, over-the-top, and designed to elicit laughter from their adult-only audiences.
However, the aesthetics of the shows has improved greatly. Producers are richer now, so sets are nicer, lights tend to have colour and do more than just turn on and off, and costumes are often quite sophisticated.
All this is true of Set Up. Set in an uptown living room and an inner-city yard, as indicated by the furnishings on the split stage, the story is about the sexual encounters between uptowners Winston Coxe and his wife Delores (played by Maxwell Grant and Monique Ellis, respectively), and downtowners Copper and his girlfriend Stella (played by Reid, the playwright, and Kimone Morgan, respectively). Trudy-Ann Bunting alternates with Morgan.
Sexual encounters ‘up and down’ town
Five years married, the Coxes are now sexually incompatible, and after a year without sex, both are ‘horny’ and happy to be assisted in finding new partners by their domestic servant, Shebada (Keith ‘Shebada’ Ramsey). His employers call Shebada a butler, but he insists that he’s a flight attendant – though he has not yet found a plane to work on.
Playwright Reid has more empathy for the inner-city couple, who, separately and without the other knowing, agree to the setup arranged by Shebada for money, than he has for the Coxes. They have too much money and spend in the tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, among other things.
As the actress playing Delores, Ellis benefits most from the Coxes’ extravagance: she has numerous changes of beautiful clothing. Still, the other characters also get a chance to occasionally change clothes to improve their appearance from one scene to another.
Both the inner-city yard – with its graffiti-defaced zinc fence, car-rim stove and outhouse – and the Coxes’ expensive-looking, though cramped, living room show evidence of a professional set designer. Unfortunately, there is no programme to tell the audience who that person is.
The combination of the performers’ natural skills and the direction by B. Lloyd Allen make for quite good acting. And it is surprisingly varied, suggesting, along with the fine set, that roots plays are crossing over into mainstream theatre. (The fact that mainstream theatre actors now regularly appear in roots plays is another indication of the crossover.)
Ramsey is his usual flamboyant self, giving larger-than-life portrayals whether he is conning people or feeling sorry for himself. The very laid-back Reid has a diametrically opposite playing style, while the others shift about on the acting spectrum between the two extremes.
All get into the skin of their purposely farcical characters and succeed in being entertaining. My audience laughed throughout the show, and theatre lovers from the environs of Lucea and May Pen will get their chance to laugh when the production goes to those towns early in February.