PEOPLE & THINGS: Simone’s Place
Conceptualiser and executive producer Marlene Hewitt, along with playwright Glenville Lovell, should be congratulated for their production Simone’s Place last weekend.
Having been part of the audience at the gala night, I feel constrained to comment on the play and its impact, but admit to lacking a sufficient theatrical and artistic background to delve into the more technical aspects of the production. Instead, I am more comfortable speaking to its social impact, the perspective on the issue of same-sex and transsexual relationships and also the comparison between this play and a similarly themed one that was presented more than a decade ago.
The actors all seemed to handle themselves well on stage. I was most impressed by Nala (Moses) and Simon Alleyne (Pecong) whose characters were genuinely complex and whose acting challenge was not a simple case of presenting themselves as “convincingly gay”. In the case of Moses, he played a relatively liberal artistic type well-enough that it never appeared strange that he, with no questions about his own sexuality, would maintain a close friendship with the transsexual Simone.
Pecong, on the other hand, was a closeted homosexual who existed in what could be considered the very gay-unfriendly environment of a fisherman and he, too, was convincing. He appeared to carry the shame of his denial in a unique and convincing way. His costuming which prevented his face from being seen and his stooped presentation made his character memorable and unique.
I feel somewhat more qualified to speak to the impact of the play especially as it relates to the social context within which its important messages were presented. This is especially so as I was fortunate enough to watch the Godfrey Sealy’s play One Of Our Sons Is Missing back in the 1990s when HIV/AIDS was less well understood, poorly treated and consequently generated considerably greater paranoia. Like Lovell, Sealy understood the extent to which theatre is a powerful tool to educate, create awareness and effect social change.
Sealy effectively forced us to confront the reality of losing a loved one to HIV/AIDS and the entire plot was therefore quite “heavy” and appropriately so. It was therefore quite disturbing that as several of us in the audience were attempting to process this emotional reality, others preferred to express amusement at aspects of the play that were not funny.
That experience taught much about the role of laughter in helping to process either shame or embarrassment, but more so about the extent to which our society was at that time not emotionally mature.
Sealy brought HIV/AIDS “home” since his lead character was not one of “those” homosexuals; he was one of “our” sons. Twenty years later I was curious to see if “we” had matured and feel confident that the audience’s reaction suggested that we have. In fairness, the perspective that Lovell took was far lighter since he grappled with social acceptance or rejection and the most significant loss among the characters would have been the loss of Stuart to New York.
The plot was therefore less heavy and Lovell provided opportunities for legitimate laughter. Notwithstanding Lovell’s central character (Simone) was not just openly gay, but transsexual which is presumably more offensive to the Barbadian homophobe than the bisexual. The fact that Lovell felt comfortable being this adventurous and moreover that his character was well received, speaks volumes about the enhanced level of maturity with respect to these issues.
It was interesting that this play opened on the same weekend that the first openly gay football player in the United States was drafted into the NFL and expressed his immense pleasure by kissing his boyfriend on national television. This kiss generated an interesting comparative debate where some Americans questioned the appropriateness of two men kissing on national television without the type of “PG” warning that Simone’s Place carried. Others commented about the fact that successful gay African Americans like Michael Sam seemed to opt for Caucasian partners, which is consistent with a parallel debate that took place in the heterosexual African American community 20 years ago.
This all demonstrates the extent to which we in the Caribbean are well behind the developed world in our thought process and this is perhaps why some of the more vocal critics of the play complained of its “simplicity”. In a world where we watched Will And Grace since the 1990s and Brokeback Mountain won an Academy Award, it is important to remember the extent to which our own society still has some growing to do and in such things “baby steps” are important.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).