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Such is life in ‘Sodom’


Icil Phillips

Such is life in ‘Sodom’

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LOOKING BACK AT SODOM, ably written and directed by Winston Farrell, and first presented as part of the final year project for the students of the Barbados Community College’s Associate Degree in Performing Arts, was revived through the foresight and initiative of the Barbados Ministry of Tourism and shown last Friday and Saturday at the Frank Collymore Hall as a culmination of the Love Safely Week 2011.
Those who had the privilege of attending were treated to theatre with a social message and call to action, and this augurs well for similar work in future in keeping with Farrell’s growing contribution as a specialist in theatre for development.  
Produced by Cecily Spencer-Cross, who is no stranger to theatre, this play probes via its language, lighting, set design and non-linear plot, unsettling issues related to loving safely in Barbados. Looking back contributed to the demise of Lot’s wife in the Bible, but Farrell puts a new twist on this reversion by suggesting, through the play’s title, that we need to consider fully the effects of the dissolute Sodom (and Gomorrah) on the lives of our old and young. 
Thus to look back is either to perish or come to one’s senses. 
For the characters in this play, who face the modern manifestation of Sodom, prostitution and its impact on the youth looms large, as well as the cause and effects of HIV/AIDS. 
Violence against women, the absent father syndrome, sex tourism, the role of religion in addressing social ills, and the diminished nature of relations between men and women are factors that contribute to the destruction of small vulnerable communities and force us to take action. 
Farrell’s style, which is the popular theatre mode, makes for an interesting display of techniques – mime, realism, movement, the use of symbolic colours and video footage, personal testimony, choral speaking and voice-overs in the form of news bulletins.
He is helped by the creativity of set designer, Cuban Leandro Soto, which is outstanding in this play. Screens with figures of women from the dancehall culture and dresses hanging aloft from crosses make clear the underlying story.
The stylized use of newspapers, an accompaniment to Farrell’s tragic vision, serves as a medium through which we are brought face-to-face with the cast-off life of the central figures in the drama and the community’s decay. The central placement of the bed reminds us of the play’s core – sex can and does kill. 
Olivia Hall’s choreography and the pervasive dancehall music in Looking Back remind us of the treatment of sex as a negotiable commodity. We are forced to empathise with the three generations of women in the play and reflect on the price they must pay for personal and sexual freedom. 
But by the time the play ends, the cost is too great. The workmanlike lighting of Nathan Gibbons assists in keeping our focus on events and does not intrude on this sad story.
But the evening belongs to budding talent, Angelo Lascelles, in his dual roles as taxi driver and the teacher, and Leanne Humphrey as Madame. Hers is a sensitive portrayal of the reformed brothel keeper, Guyanese accent and all.
Shana Hinds as the HIV-positive mother, Paula, shows her growing sensitivity as an actor. She is able to move through a variety of emotions, but seems best playing the drunk woman intent on evading her plight.
Levi King as Ralphe, the dressmaker confidante of Madame and Paula, keeps a little too much control of his character as the “she-she” man. 
Shakira Forde as Yasmine, Paula’s abandoned daughter, is another bright spark as is Ashley Corbin (Nathalie). They show us the effects of prostitution on teenagers, demonstrate the repetitive cycle that youth face when there is breakdown in the family, and provide the reason the sequence of abuse must be ended. 
Matthew Murrell as Polo, the cruel business partner of Madame, plays his role with conviction evoking our disgust at his degradation of all the women he encounters. His death, at the hands of Madame, is a form of retributive justice but it cannot eliminate the broken lives that remain.
A couple of reminders seem in order, however. Short scenes are better suited for film and not for stage as they break up the flow of the drama. The audience requires arresting beginnings to excite interest and hold its attention. With this in mind, the news bulletins that introduced both halves of the play did neither.
More care should be taken with costuming which should have carried greater symbolic weight. This imagery associated with the costuming could have been replicated in the depiction of the time of day and the time period of the play. 
Nonetheless, this production provides us with some important developments. Looking Back is a potent vehicle for changing our attitudes towards sex. There is no shortage of worthwhile material from upcoming playwrights as they put our world in perspective. And the array of young talent in this play is a welcome sign that theatre is alive and well in Barbados.
Icil Phillips is a theatre practitioner and a member of the Caribbean arm of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC).

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