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We’re not interested in mechanics of governance

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A friend of mine called me up and said: “I have two press tickets to a play called Play Mas by Mustapha Mathura, a prominent Trinidad-born playwright here. As a Trini I thought you would like to come.” Did I ever? I was intrigued. Why had I not heard of Mustapha Matura? I checked him out. He was described by the New Statesman as “the most perceptive and humane of black dramatists writing in Britain.”

Born as Noel Matura in December 1939, of mixed parentage in Trinidad, he changed his name when he became a writer. He left Trinidad in 1962 and after a year working as a hospital porter, he and fellow Trinidadian Horace Ové went to Rome where he worked on stage productions such as Shakespeare in Harlem. Matura thereafter wrote plays about the West Indian experience in London. In his interviews he openly says he writes about Trinidad almost as a way of overcoming homesickness.

Now that I knew who he was, I too, like Mustapha could do with a little feel of home. There is nothing like a long winter for becoming completely maudlin about Trinidad. I was down to asking friends and family on Skype if they spotted any poui flowers, any immortelle? I longed to feel the sun on my face. Did coconut water taste good; what the sun felt like on your face?

So I found myself at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond on a freezing day. I soon felt the warmth of the intimate theatre and settings. Here was familiarity. Oh calypso. Steelband music. So gentle it felt like a breeze on a warm day. On each corner of the tiny theatre, I saw with a melting heart, street signs, “Woodbrook” “St Clair” “Laventille” “St James.”

Such is the power of art. It can transport you back 65 years and lunge you geographically in the present to the island you call home. Play Mas is set in a tailor’s shop in the early 1950s in Laventille with three main characters around Carnival time. Samuel, of African descent, is an apprentice of the Indian tailor Ramjohn Gookool and Ramjohn’s mother Miss Gookool. 

Ramjohn and his mother treat Samuel more like a servant than an apprentice. Yet their mutual affection and rapport is obvious. Their relationship shifts when Carnival comes around and there is a buzz about a new leader called Eric Williams. Samuel wants to play mas. Ramjohn says: “Niggers only like to chase down women and fight. They don’t want to know about the world.” Samuel counters that “Coolies are NOT Trinidadians. They are Coolies.”

He takes time off one day from work to hear Eric Williams speaking. He is indignant that the oil companies get 75 per cent of the profit. That the locals get only a quarter from their own. When Samuel insists he wants to play mas, Mrs Gookool fires him. Thereafter a number of Carnival characters appear. Starting with Samuel, who shows up dressed like an armed marine soldier and threatens to shoot both Ramjohn and his mother and after he terrifies them, reveals he is in costume. The midnight robber shows up. Rum swigging female Bishop shows up.

By 1963 the roles have reversed. Samuel, a police inspector under the PNM, uses Ramjohn as a pawn to find out about the guns, the trouble on the hill. The playwright Mustapha Matura has this to say about his character Samuel. “Samuel is the play itself. He evolves in the play. He’s kind of riding the political wave and a movement that is taking place in Trinidad at the time. 

“This was from ’55 to ’60; independence came in 1962. The African origin population had found a champion—Dr Eric Williams who was socking it to the colonial powers. What was happening in the ’50s was there were these were bright, hungry boys. They were coming out of colonialism and they wanted to self-rule. 

“It was a force you couldn’t stop. So Eric Williams was a powerhouse and he knew how to deliver a speech. He had a deadpan way of speaking and he loved to use big words and the crowd loved it. Dr Williams got into power, but it got all messy. I don’t think he was interested in the mechanics of government. “There’s a wonderful story that he used to sit down with his Chinese businessmen, playing poker and eating ice cream and this is the PM of my country.”

I want to cringe every time I hear the words “coolie” and “nigger.” I want to tell my English journo friend that it’s not like that in Trinidad anymore. We have problems but race isn’t one of them. It’s just a political divide. Then I read that a man called Anthony Mcleod, called a “stinking nigger” by United National Congress (UNC) activist Jaishima Leladharsingh, has accepted Leladharsingh’s public apology. 

I read that many found the Opposition Leader, Keith Rowley’s aim at the PM degrading to woman: “She could jump high, she could jump low, she could drink this, she could drink that, she could bark at meh dog, because I go ignore she cat.” I think of the play. Nothing has changed. In fact, people living in Trinidad in the ’50s had it good. We are still not interested in the mechanics of governance.


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