Jamaica is an island paradise both idyllic and charming — for foreigners, maybe. For Jamaicans, paradise is a concept lost to years of oppression and fighting. In "Our Hands Are Sore From Praying," playwright Janine Heath '10 explores Jamaica's exploited past, turbulent present and unsure future.
Rites and Reason Theatre, together with the Department of Africana Studies, presented the one-act play Feb. 26–28.
The show began with director Connie Crawford, adjunct lecturer in theatre arts and performance studies, taking the stage to welcome the audience. Immediately the pulsing beats of Jamaican music began to drown her out. "I said not yet, guys!" she said with a laugh. The music got louder as the cast rushed on stage from all directions and shouted at the audience, "Shut off them cell phones!"
The play tells the story of two young Jamaican men. George Gayle, played by Providence actor Jo-'an Peralta, is a first-generation American citizen working to redeem his nation. Mocho George, played by Bradley Toney '10, is a Jamaican immigrant to New York, failing to make his way as a writer in the face of prejudice.
The link between the two is Sophie, played by Nkecki Eze '12, a young Jamaican woman who used to date Mocho before he left for America. When George Gayle comes to the island full of naive hope, she is instantly drawn to him and the potential escape he represents for her and her little brother, played by Steven Kouame, a local middle schooler.
George Gayle is equally attracted to Sophie and, as he learns the depth of Jamaica's problems, becomes determined to get her and her brother far away from the danger the current political regime is imposing on its people.
In contrast, Mocho is deported from the United States after getting arrested for dealing drugs. Back in Jamaica, Mocho is determined to get Sophie back, but she is not interested. George Gayle is not at all impressed by Mocho and tells him, "Men like you should be saving this country, not killing it."
Narrating this story and one of their own are the Chief and Nanny of the Maroons — the characters Heath said she feels most connected with — played by Matthew Thanabalan '10 and Lynsey Ford '10. The Maroons were a group of runaway slaves who established free settlements throughout Jamaica in the 18th century. The term is still used today for their modern descendents. The Chief and Nanny give audience members a look into the Jamaica's past while simultaneously guiding us through the lives of George Gayle, Mocho and Sophie.
The play actually started out as a single spoken word piece between the two and grew from there, Heath said.
Heath has been a spoken word artist for several years, but "Our Hands Are Sore From Praying" was her first venture into theater, she said.
She was inspired to write the play after a professor during her junior year said Jamaica was considered a failed state, she said. Coming from a Jamaican family, this statement upset Heath but also got her thinking about her role in her country's experiences, like George Gayle does in the play.
"It started as a personal examination of my place in the dialogue," she said.
Researching information for the play, Heath spent a good portion of time speaking with family members and others about both life in Jamaica and life in America, she said. "Our Hands" is essentially the story of any immigrant losing his or her foundations and not being able to reclaim them, Heath said.
In addition to speaking with family, Heath also delved into Jamaica's culture and history and incorporated much of what she found into the play. For example, Heath included characters such as the British queen, the American king and the devils from the Junkanoo band, a Jamaican tradition, she said.
The devils in "Our Hands" are played by Alexandra Bernson '12 and Kiana Alzate '10. The two represent a loss of hope, togetherness and virtue as they try to control the characters' situations.
"They represent the dark, internal voices we have," Heath said. "It's not clear if they actually exist or if they are just in each of the characters' minds."
The devils taunt Mocho and push him to work as a drug dealer, mock Sophie's dreams of leaving Jamaica and ridicule George for being a "black man with a white man's burden" since he has come to Jamaica to "educate the savages."
Despite the obvious animosity among the characters, the cast and crew have a wonderful off-screen chemistry.
"The actors did such an amazing job," Heath said. "I just wrote words, but they made it whole."
The interactions between cast and crew were also great, as can be seen in the mutual praise Heath and Eze have for each other.
"Nkechi is very impressive," Heath said. "She got the accent on the first day and she's not Jamaican."
Heath also said that she had to thank Crawford for getting the ball rolling and interpreting the script.
The play is also a result of Rites and Reason Theatre's Research-to-Perform Method, in which students' plays are developed based on research and a thesis. The entire cast and crew had a chance to interpret the material and help shape the final project.
"I loved working with the Rites and Reason Theatre because they emphasize research and personal responsibility," Eze wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "As a result, mutual respect was developed in the course of the rehearsals and it is an experience I will never forget."
The overall result was a fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining play that got audience members thinking about a nation known usually as an island retreat in an entirely new light.
"It was an interesting and different experience," Carolyn Lee '10 said after viewing the production. "It was a more interactive way of putting on a play."