The Barefoot Contessa on Becoming Jean

By Stephanie Leitch Monday, January 9th, 2012 Categories: Barefoot Trails, Reports, Updates
 

Jean and Dinah was one of the featured productions in UWI’s Theatre of Plays in December 2011. The production directed by theatre major Tishanna Williams was a re interpretation of the original playwright Tony Hall’s vision to give voice to the women immortalized in the Mighty Sparrow’s 1956 classic. Unlike the original there was no linear progression in time or scene and four actors were used to play the two women at young and old stages.

Being red and having a reputation of being slack doesn’t automatically elevate you to jammet status – that has to be earned! Some months before auditioning for Jean and Dinah I was told by the castors of Gutter Beautiful another local production that I wasn’t whoreish enough, too well spoken and stiff. Granted similar comments were given to me by my own director but the difference was I got the part. I had been given the opportunity to show the layers of complementarity and contradiction of being that exist within me.

Jean was a young, beautiful, vain, tough, proud, stubborn, chronic smoking whore who thought she knew everything about life but managed to get fucked over by it anyway. In many respects the character of Jean was not very far away from myself and the theme of friendship and betrayal hit very close to home. One night in an impromptu exercise conducted by veteran thespian Michael Cherrie, the cast made up of both young and old Jean and Dinah were asked to recall a time when we felt betrayed or betrayed someone. Needless to say at the end of the session everyone was in tears. This was one of the most important parts of my journey as Jean to really connect with her in me. In life we know that love and friendship is a complex dance, filled with hurt, sacrifice, compromise, forgiveness and loss, a story to which everyone can relate. Contrary to popular belief, Jean and Dinah was not a story about prostitutes but a story about two women who loved each other against all odds.

Playing a 1950s whore of all trades, however, came with its own demands but luckily we had the accompaniment of not only the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Blakie on stage with their classics Miss Mary, Drunk & Disorderly and Steelband Clash but also the pleasure of warming up to Jammet by the more contemporary 3Canal before rehearsal and special dance classes to learn the movements of Fancy Sailor, Flag Woman and Stick Fighting. Jean and Dinah and other women of that ilk, some of whom are household names, were not just whores but mavericks who took pride in their craft whatever its manifestation.  For many women of that era and even now the possibilities often culminated in the masquerade of Carnival – a time when they could be anything!

The unfortunate reality of time constraints caused several cuts to the 2hr+ production and most of those were made to Act II, including the hospital scene where Dinah visited Jean just after her hand was chopped and Jean’s decision to give up her child with a white sailor. These scenes were integral to understanding the nuances of Jean and Dinah’s relationship and we were all sorry to see them go. The original baby doll scene played by young Jean was also cut but the director determined to keep the doll, successfully weaved it into the dialogue between old Jean and Dinah.

This role was the most challenging and rewarding for several reasons. I wanted an opportunity to show my range, in spite of my reduced stage time and the doll allowed me to do just that. I had prior experience with the traditional mas’ character, having played “baby doll” twice before in the last three years. This experience however did not prepare me for what was expected of an abused, child like – adult, surreal, maniacal doll. After several weeks of walking around with an imaginary baby and asking stage hands if they’d had seen my baby’s father I had a breakthrough. I finally understood the darkness of the character in a very real way and I think finding the comedy within the tragedy was quite a difficult process for all the actors. The audience however had no difficulty in finding the comedy, which I would like to contribute to good acting but also perhaps to laughter being the most acceptable publicly displayed emotion. Either way it was quite satisfying when the laughter turned into a deafening silence when the doll took stage.

 

I give thanks for the opportunity to learn about myself and bear witness to how the various lessons manifest in personal and dramatic expression.  We are never just what we do, as our dreams and imagination are for the most part far more ostentatious than our reality and our lives stand testament to the possibility of doing things better …. A whore taught me that.

 

All images courtesy Arnaldo James Digital Photography

Stephanie Leitch
Stephanie Leitch

Stephanie Leitch is a postgraduate student and tutor at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. She is a women’s and LBGT rights advocate and has been organizing is various capacities since 2007. Her creative activism has included installation, public-space intervention, traditional mas’, theatre and film. She is also a recent featured candidate of the UNDP’s Youth-IN Webisodes project.