Errol John’s 1953 play, ‘Moon on a Rainbow Shawl’, is now back on at the National Theatre in London. The production is tremendously powerful with a cast of thoroughly credible, immensely engaging actors (even if only one of them got the Trinidad accent right), spearheaded by an outstanding Martina Laird. Set in a Trinidad tenement yard just after the war, it tells the story of the interconnecting, and very publicly lived, lives of the struggling residents who reside there.
At the center of the action – the ‘goings on’ – is Sophia Adams (Ms Laird), who is the story’s moral compass, a sort of one-person, fully fleshed-out Greek chorus. It is through her eyes – her emotional responses to her neighbors and to her own dire situation – that the pervasiveness and inescapability of despair is expressed.
The situation of the characters, framed as a slice of Trinidad in 1947, is one where there’s a kind of depressing predestination. Poverty, race and background conspire to ensure that the girls will get pregnant, the women folk will forever struggle to make ends meet, the intelligent will remain under-educated, the men will slip into petty crime and the ease of abuse – either through prostitution or patronage – will forever be commonplace. There can never be any escape! Except…except… maybe there can be. The amoral Ephraim (Danny Sapani) ignores the young girl he’s just impregnated and with what is seen as an enormous existential pull, manages to suck himself away from his fate. He is the only one who manages to drag himself away (to England, as so many did then) from everything he knows to what he hopes will be a better life; one that’s an escape from the inevitability of working class destiny.
As a piece of theatre, the play is visually extremely accurate. Apparently, working only from photographs (at least that what’s Danny Sapani told me), designer Soutra Gimour has faithfully re-created a tenement yard, right down to the (working) stand-pipe in the weed cluttered, mud packed yard. I felt as though I had been transported back in time. This was the time when, as the calypsos playing reminded the theatre-goers, ‘brown skin girls’ had to ‘stay home to mind baby’ and when the GI’s injected sperm and cash to the cash strapped society, or as Sparrow sang, “Rosita and Clementina, round the corner ‘posing, bet your life is something they selling.”
‘Moon…’ was pretty much an instant hit for new playwright Errol John who won an Observer award inaugurated by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (the judges were Tynan, Peter Hall, Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness… not a bad group of judges). Though rooted in that post war world, the play feels as relevant now as it was then. The relentless cycle of the lives of so many poor – mainly Black but also White – people (sadly the escape Ephraim had hoped for to London still hasn’t really been realized) – of pregnancy, poverty and the police – remains unsullied.