Bitter Cassava revival is sweet (June 26, 2016)

Bitter Cassava review“Hell hath no fury like a woman wronged.” “Your sins will come back to haunt you.” These sayings embody the spirit of Bitter Cassava, which tells a story of betrayal and revenge with a strong Trinbagonian flavour, delivering several strong emotional blows with a sprinkling of comedy to relieve the tension.

The story touches on many issues seen in T&T society, including sexism, colourism, misogyny and domestic violence. There are very strong elements of folklore and spirituality incorporated throughout the play, which lend to its texture and believability.

The story begins with a policeman (Gervon Abraham) coming to arrest Samuel William Blondell (Muhammad Muwakil) for the murder of a woman and a child. He is intercepted by an old man, Pa Cefus (Darin Gibson), who narrates the events leading up to that day. This exchange is often comedic and provides some relief as the scenes flash back and forth between the narration and the action.

In the first scene, Samuel physically throws his common-law wife Justina (Tishanna Williams) out of the house, as she pleads with him to think of their three children. The scene was powerful and gut-wrenching and almost visceral in its impact. Samuel is the village ram, and almost universally loved by the village people, who turn out en masse to chastise Justina and chase her away with the song “Go Way Justina”, with the exception of Pa Cefus.

Less than a month later, Samuel brings a new bride to the village, a red woman from Port of Spain. Betty is universally welcomed by the villagers, in stark contrast to their treatment of Justina, leaving one to wonder how much the difference in skin colour has to do with their treatment of the two women. The wedding reception is full of colour, beautiful music and dancing, with masterful performances by Kurtis Gross as “Papa Iban,” the village priest and Mavis John as “Mother Lucy,” the village songstress. The party is interrupted halfway through by Justina, who challenges that “dutty stink red woman” for her man. She is confronted by Samuel and Betty, and the entire village tells her to “Allez” (go away) to which she replies “Mwe-ka-allez” (I going); “N’homme la dis mwe allez, mwe-ka-allez” (the man want me to go, so I going).”

As the village does the Bele Dance to celebrate the occasion and the bride is presented to them, Justina again comes in, covered in blood, having murdered her three children. She curses Betty, promising them that she and their first-born child will follow her into hell on the child’s 13th birthday, before stabbing herself, to the shock and horror of all present, including the audience. Mother Lucy gives a tear-jerking rendition of “Hand of Mercy” as Papa Iban prays that the evil which had contaminated the village would not linger.

Fast-forward a year, and the village again comes to the Samuel house, to christen the first-born child, a girl. Things take a spooky turn when the knife Justina used to commit suicide suddenly reappears. Papa Iban blesses the yard with water, candles and a cocoyea broom before sprinkling the knife with holy water and warning Samuel not to return to his village ram ways, lest Justina’s curse comes true. This works for a while, and husband and wife are happy, going on to have five more children, until Samuel gets a visitation from Justina’s spirit, where he is accosted by spirits who sexually arouse him. While under the spell, he mistakes Betty for Justina and rapes her. Their relationship goes downhill from there and Samuel goes back to his drinking, gambling and fornicating.

Fast-forward again, and it’s Lizzie’s (Annalisa Wickham), the first-born child’s, 13th birthday. She’s having a costume party and is dressed as a douen. Her father and mother quarrel in front of the whole village, with the women defending Betty and the men defending Samuel. They go off, leaving the children alone, and douens lure Lizzie outside, making her one of them. Betty returns to the yard where the douens swarm her and she strangles one of them while calling for her child in a frenzy. Samuel comes back to find that Lizzie is the one who was strangled, and when Betty realizes this, she stabs herself with the same knife Justina used, which has again mysteriously reappeared. The play ends with the policeman taking Samuel away as Pa Cefus says bitter cassava is a bitter, bitter crop to reap.

Apart from a few technical issues with the lights and music, the production was beautifully put together. Credit must be given to Gregor Breedy for the beautiful choreography, choral arranger Lois Lewis for the music, and costume designer Carlyne Lacailla. Kimberley Stoute-Robinson and Tafar Chia Lewis also deserve special mention as the village macos. The powerful performances by all actors involved, including the cast and chorus, combined to make this play one worth seeing over and over.

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