art in all its forms

art in all its forms


The politics of Jab Molassie

Roger Roberts as Jab Molassie

IN AN INTERVIEW in 1978, Trinidadian novelist Samuel Selvon set out a conflict he faced in his work. For him, there was a tension between the use of standard English and the everyday language of conversations, the vernacular.

"I still have this problem of having to think consciously of what I am going to say and how to phrase what I want to express," Selvon said. "I grew up in Trinidad speaking the way Trinidadians talk. And that remained with me throughout all my years living abroad. I find that if you were a Trinidadian and I was talking to you, perhaps I could slip into the dialect form." He felt strongly that dialect is to be presented in standard English, not written phonetically.

"I feel this jars on the readers' eyes and it makes any dialect form so much more difficult to understand," Selvon said. He was not the only writer to have this view. Other novelists have taken a similar stance, such as Merle Hodge in "Crick Crack, Monkey".

The tensions set out by Selvon are reflected in "Jab Molassie", a work of opera which seeks to immerse its audience in a Trinidadian scenario using language which, though poetic, remains in dialect, with the added complication of being in rhyming couplets.

"Jab Molassie" follows Starboy as he gives up something precious to him for the sake of material gain. It is a story set in Laventille written by an American, Caitlyn Kamminga, who grew up in New Orleans and moved here from her last posts at Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

Kamminga has clearly bent over backwards to replicate authentic Trini dialect. At the same time, she has kept the language in formal rhyming couplets. This is an unusual blend which some audience members took a while to adjust too. Others, though had no problems. I felt what was being communicated was clear enough. However, some restraint would have been beneficial. In everyday language, Trinidadians slip in and out of standard English. Therefore, the approach to the dialogue should be more multi-faceted. The text gains if it does not stick pedantically to the vernacular at each and every line. This is the balance which Selvon thought he found in his novel, "The Lonely Londoners".

That said, the tensions in the language of "Jab Molassie" did not overly harm my experience of it. Perhaps this was because the medium of opera comes with an expectation that things are not going to be natural. Persons entering an opera - when they do actually enter to consider the art - do so with certain expectations, bracing for a peculiar experience. Opera is difficult. In the first place, most are in foreign languages. Also, they can sometimes seem highly-mannered, stilted. As lush and beautiful as some productions are, modern audiences can feel alienated by the formality of the language used. Yet, this same formality is what draws others.

The tension of the language of "Jab Molassie" does not detract from the work because we are already within a heavily stylised realm. In a weird way, the unrealistic nature of the dialogue enriches the sense of another world being created and the ideas raised within it. The language mimics the political themes within the story. For the use of our dialect is not just an attempt at realism. It becomes an assertion of identity. It demands the audience come to grips with it. It shows that it has a place in the high art of opera. As imperfect as it is formulated, the language paints a vivid picture of who we are.

What "Jab Molassie" represents is never expressed. We understand it is about material gain. But we are left to project other possibilities such as: party politics; crime, violence and gangsterism; power; gender; self-representation; nationalism versus individualism; addiction, drugs and booze; love or all of the above. There is a strong social sub-text. The production is about the different things that lure young people. The common thread is temptation. The Jab is the devil himself.

At one stage, Starboy trades his precious violin for a magic book which gives him whatever he wants. But it is suggested this comes at a price. It is notable that a book is the taboo object which seduces and turns Starboy to possible oblivion. Is this a critique of knowledge? Of book-sense as opposed to commonsense?

An interesting aspect of "Jab Molassie" is the decision taken to have both female and male embodiments of characters. So the narrator, the Corporal, is split into two roles played by a female and male actor. So too the titular Jab. Also, at the run at the Little Carib Theatre, Woodbrook, from November 6 to November 9, the orchestra was placed onstage. While there are space constraints at Little Carib, I wonder how things might have worked with the orchestra amid the audience?

Though this show is entitled "Jab Molassie", it's all about Starboy and his coming of age. We are absorbed by this. However, I felt the production was too short. I wanted to know more about Starboy and understand the context within which he operated. While there are merits to a short, breezy production, the fallout is the development of conflict. We do not really see the price Starboy pays for his decision and thereby must project our own ideas of the worth of his salvation at the climax.

The strongest aspect of the production is its music which cannot be faulted. Dominque Le Gendre's score is incredible. Her contribution to Caribbean culture I fear is not properly understood. Her work is powerfully stamped by her unique aesthetic. Ironically that aesthetic is a cosmopolitan, Caribbean one, which has been described as creole, meaning it is hard to pin down. The tonal qualities of her music, the precarious balance between play, darkness and ambiguous lyricism, her unabashed passion for vintage Caribbean melody and form and for infusing these elements within an avant garde sensibility make for true magic. Because of the music and the skill of the actors, "Jab Molassie" achieves the sublime. It mesmerises with its sections about love, then grips you in terror.

The production design was also beautiful, with stock light projections chosen by Benny Gomes and director Patricia Cumper suggesting the hills of Laventille in a manner reminiscent of Braque.

The performance at the Little Carib Theatre made me wonder where Nickolai Salcedo has been before all this. Yes, a bandleader, yes a painter. But here he is intriguing, mercurial. You wonder what is next. Roger Roberts, of 3canal fame, and soprano Natalia Dopwell were perfectly cast as Jab Molassie, embodying menace. That said, I sometimes wished both characters had more shades of complexity.
The narrating Corporal was a highlight, played by Wendell Manwarren and Germaine Wilson. Of Starboy, the Corporal remarks: "That boy clever, but he ain't smart!" and, later, "He got everything, /Tout Bagai! / Everything he want / The book provides. / But he startin' to feel / Empty inside." Overall, this production, an adaptation of Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale", was better than the original.


- from Newsday, November 18, 2014