blood.claat: in the head - to June 9 at the Firehall
There is a scene – maybe half way through blood.claat – where the mother of Mudgu, the play’s central character, appears. The scene takes us back approximately three years to when Mudgu had her first period, before her mother’s departure for Canada.
The mother’s reaction to her daughter’s period is in marked contrast to Granny’s disgust over a blood-stained sheet in a scene at the top of the play. Where Granny insists that Mudgu wash both the sheet and her “something” with Dettol, her mother greets the onset of menstruation as something to be celebrated. Mommy is so filled with love, comfort and natural wisdom that she stands out against the conflict that drives the rest of the play’s interwoven narratives.
Mommy’s appearance at this point is crucial, because it’s her absence that is so painfully noticeable for the rest of Mudgu’s story. Not only must Mudgu live with a domineering Granny while her mother is away in Foreign (as the teenager refers to Canada), she must also contend with a bible-thumbing aunt, a dick-holding boyfriend and a machete-wielding bus conductor. Finally, again without her mother’s support, she gives birth and thus becomes another in a long line of children having children. And despite all these mothers being created, there is no mothering going on in Mudgu’s world.
The mother’s appearance is also a nifty narrative link – and appropriate for a character that is far more romantic than practical. She uses Mudgu’s transformation to womanhood as an opportunity to tell her daughter a story that feels part family legend/part founding myth of a people. The story is of Nanny and her twin sister’s arrival in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica (the location of blood.claat). It’s steeped in slavery and rebellion and touches on the two thematic strands that weave throughout the text: women’s experience of menstruation and men’s expression of bloody violence. The women bleed through their nature while the men, through their violence, cause others to bleed.
If this sounds like a complicated and sophisticated narrative, it is. Solo performer d’bi.young.anitafrika’s ability to loop narratives out of Mudgu’s central story is best illustrated – and is used most effectively – in the sequence where a stuttering bus conductor attacks his passengers with a machete. This modern, urban tale is quickly linked back to what I believe (it’s not always easy to follow the links in blood.claat) is an African legend where a tribal leader returns home and kills his own community through a terrible misunderstanding (that is mistaking a vow of silence for disrespect).
d’bi.young.anitafrika, who is also the writer, is a compelling performer and is able to move between characters with aplomb. For example, her Canadian customs officer is hilarious and includes a nifty turn on the standard landing card questions, that becomes an almost chant of the repeated refrain of “drugs, weapons?” Granny is often shown as a silhouette projected against a white sheet and it is positively eerie to see how young transforms her body into the older woman. Her Mudgu is so full of delight and energy that I was glad to be in her company. In fact, young is such a charismatic presence that if she were to return next week with another show, I’d be first in line. Her performance earned her a standing ovation on opening night.
However, I was surprised by blood.claat and not in a way I would have expected. Despite the nifty spelling, despite the supposed fusion of dub poetry, story-telling and theatre, at core blood.claat is simply a standard, straight-forward one-person show: our central hero goes down several blind alleys before a big, unexpected revelation at the end. Like so many dramas, this revelation has a strong Oprah quality to it that is meant to unravel some deep mystery or unlock the story. To be honest, I don’t know how it fitted into the overall structure of the piece or the themes that young was exploring in such depth for the first eighty minutes or so.
Unlike a reviewer at a metropolitan daily, I didn’t see the end revelation as the “central tenet of the play”. He also assumed that the play was biographical – which it may very well be. At this point on June 5, I have no clue and I’m not going to go on the internet to find out. I can’t judge the work – as he does – on the power of the personal story it may or may not tell nor can I get excited about what it means to live in a jolly nice multicultural country like Canada. As a playwright I’m interested in blood.claat as a created work – and extremely interested in young as an artist – and as a created work there is something misfiring for me.
I have come to the conclusion that the script is almost too literary in its conceits. The links young makes between male violence and menstruation, between African legends, Jamaican founding stories and a teenage girl are both effective and affecting. They are, indeed of Michael Ondaatje quality – his novels, that is.
And that’s the problem. In a novel I would savour these connections, let them roll around in my mouth. I just don’t believe you can afford to do that in theatre, where ideas need to be married to energy and movement. Crucially they need to be clearly expressed, which is not always the case with blood.claat. When you go too far down the road of literariness you run the real danger of putting the audience into an intellectual space where they are so busy thinking about the quality of the allusions that have just been made – or how one narrative fits into another – that you take them out of the emotional reality which is at core of good theatre.
I guess I’d hoped to be more formally challenged by blood.claat and it was surprising to see a piece that was more in the head than in the blood.
_A Magnetic North Theatre Festival presentation. Theatre Passe Muraille: blood.claat. Written by d'bi.young.anitafrika. Directed/dramaturged by Weyni Mengesha. Music composed by Amina Alfred. Original choreography by Learie McNicolls and Byron Beckford. Performed by d'bi.young.anitafrika. Firehall Arts Centre, June 4-9, 2008_