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The Ritual still relevant at 35

Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Playwright Zeno Obi Constance, seated, is surrounded by the original cast members of his classic play, The Ritual. This is the 35th year since the play was written and first performed in the Secondary School Drama Festival. The original cast was presented with awards from the Secondary Schools Drama Association on Friday at the Naparima Bowl, San Fernando. Cast: Second from left, Leverne Wharton, Andrea Cato-Robinson, Denise Thompson-Bristow and Madlyn St Cyr Far left is Wharton's daughter Letoja Jack. PHOTOS: RISHI RAGOONATH

Zeno Obi Constance’s classic play The Ritual is famous for its style. The play-within-a-play technique was new to T&T theatre when the play was first performed 35 years ago at the 1978 Secondary Schools Drama Festival.  On Friday, at the Naparima Bowl, during a tribute performance and awards ceremony, The Ritual at 50, there were plays within plays. During the ceremony, excerpts from The Ritual were performed not only by the original cast members, but also the Fyzabad Drama Connection and the Fyzabad Secondary School Drama Group. The drama group performed the play during this year’s Secondary Schools Drama Festival and has qualified for the finals on November 30. Friday’s performances were multi-generational, with actors of various ages all taking on the roles of Omega and her five friends. 


The programme spoke to the lasting relevance of The Ritual, which is set in a secondary school classroom. Five friends of pregnant 16-year-old Omega take turns pretending to be the pregnant teenager. While giving opening remarks on Friday, Constance said the play was written at the suggestion of fellow Secondary Schools Drama Festival official Ken Ford. Constance was 26 and Ford suggested he write a play about the school where he had recently started teaching. After asking students what were some of the most pressing issues facing them, Constance found most said “teen pregnancy.” He started out writing a play specifically about that and it morphed into a piece that spoke to much larger issues. The liner notes say, “The play is subtitled Friday Morning First Period since at one level the action takes place on any Friday morning during the first period. This is the base to which performers return after each episode or ritual. It is the reality which they cannot yet escape, whereas the rituals are the fantasies through which they hope to create a new reality, a new Caribbean woman and hence a new Caribbean society.” 


Constance taught at Fyzabad Secondary School for 36 years before he retired last September. He was the founder of the school’s drama group and instrumental in the founding of the drama festival, which will celebrate its 50th year in 2014. The Ritual has been performed 19 times at the Secondary Schools Drama Festival and countless productions have been put on by theatre companies regionally and internationally—most without Constance’s knowledge. Last year, a group in London wrote a musical based on the play and Constance found out by a chance Google search. The play is now also part of the curriculum for first year theatre students at the University of the West Indies as well as CXC students studying theatre arts. The association presented the original cast—Isidora Johnson, Leverne Wharton, Madlyn St Cyr, Denise Thompson-Bristow and Andrea Cato-Robinson—with lifetime achievement awards. All women attended the event except Johnson, who now lives in the US. Noted on the trophies presented to the original cast was a poignant quote from the play: “You and you and you. All a’ we. All woman who ever love before or get love, or skip school or storm taxi or cuss teacher or screw after party, all is Omega. And all a’ we who carry the guilt of a girl who get pregnant but didn’t want to get pregnant.”  


The trials faced by the characters in the play can be paralleled to those faced by Constance and the actresses in performing the play. Constance said that he and the cast rehearsed in secret for two months before the play was performed at the 1978 festival. There were two reasons for the secrecy: Constance wanted to surprise audiences with the technique used in the production and he was also unsupported by the school’s administration in his work with drama. When The Ritual became a finalist in the festival, however, it was videotaped for the now defunct T&T Television (TTT) and aired in 1979. An excerpt from the taped version was played at the start of Friday’s programme. Unfortunately, the entire play was never shown onscreen. Constance said viewers called in complaining about the use of language like “a--” and the adult content of the play, which was immediately cut by TTT without any explanation and never aired again. During preparation for the festival, Constance had to pay out of his own pocket for costumes, transportation and other necessities for the cast. 


Still, he and others lauded the play’s longevity. “The Ritual has survived and it will continue to survive as long as children are still getting pregnant at 16,” Constance lamented. He also said there continues to be a lack of support and interest in drama, particularly the drama festival, from school administrators and principals. However, the cast members agreed that there were many life lessons to be learned from theatre. Thompson-Bristow said working with Constance afforded her the first opportunity to travel outside of T&T. “He stood up for us and we used drama to move on and get ahead in life,” said Thompson-Bristow. Wharton said they learned about much more than theatre. “It wasn’t just drama. He made sure we went to class, made sure we behaved at school and at home. Zeno was the type of teacher who would buy lunch for students who came to school hungry.  When we were doing this play we didn’t have any support from school. Zeno did it on his own. It took tenacity on our part and Zeno’s.”


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