No Pussyfooting in Cock Tales

 

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It takes a lot of spunk to call your play Cock Tales. And then to tack on “Shame on Me!” Exclamation mark! This clearly shows you’re not ashamed at all. You’re brazening it out. That’s Debra Ehrhardt for you. This cocky Jamaican playwright and actress is certainly not afraid to talk up di tings. After the spectacular success of her brilliant one-woman play, Jamaica Farewell, Debra’s back with another winner.

Cock Tales is about penises and the men attached to them. It’s also about how one woman deals with the penises she unexpectedly comes upon. From childhood to adulthood! But, as Debra coyly admitted on ‘CVM at Sunrise’ last Thursday, it’s not all that many penises.

In the programme notes, Debra reveals her husband’s reaction to Cock Tales: “When my husband heard the name of my new show, he about lost his mind. I gently explained that his penis was not the first I’d encountered in my life, and that Cock Tales and all my one-woman shows have come from my own life experiences.”

Debra’s play addresses serious social issues such as sexual abuse of girls and sexual repression in Christian families. But there’s also lots of humour. When a well-dressed man on a train in New York invites Debra to view his penis, she raucously exposes him, much to the delight of the audience on the train and in the theatre. Debra skilfully seduces us to laugh even when she’s dealing with trauma. It’s a subtle art. Laughter often masks pain. And it also helps us cope with pain.

PASTOR COULDA NEVER DO DAT!

th-1Debra grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home. The church doesn’t come off so well in the play. Pastor White offers the young girl a ride home. In the seclusion of the car, he grabs her hand and places it on his penis. She knows it’s a sin and puts up loud resistance. And she tells her mother.

Fortunately for Debra, her mother believes her. They dash off to the pastor’s home to confront him. Many abused girls aren’t so lucky. Their mothers refuse to even consider the possibility that the child is a victim of abuse. Not if the predator is an upstanding member of the community. And certainly not if he brings groceries regularly! No sah! Pastor coulda never do dat!

Cock Tales makes us contemplate the shame that victims of abuse often endure. That’s the other meaning of “Shame on Me!” It’s the victim who feels shame. Not the heartless attacker. And no matter how innocent the child, she is tainted by abuse. And it can mark her for life. Yu never hear what happen to her? Poor thing! Her life mash up now. She done fah. And the perpetrator of the crime often gets off scot-free.

Of course, I’m not going to tell you all the tales in Debra’s play. You have to go and see for yourself. The play opened last Wednesday at the Jamaican Shopping Club Theatre, formerly Green Gables, on Cargill Avenue. It’s on from Wednesday to Sunday until the 19th of February. Seventh-day Adventists should turn out in large numbers to look in Debra’s mirror. It’s an opportunity for reflection. I hope it’s not still a sin to go to the theatre.

FOUR CAN’T PLAY

Cock Tales isn’t the only play in town that’s dealing with men out of control. Basil Dawkins’ Four Can’t Play is on at the Little Little Theatre. It stars Oliver Samuels. He’s not the bad guy. His only problem is a very bad case of snoring. The villain is an irrationally jealous man who attacks anyone he thinks is attracted to his wife. He ends up in prison. Again, the play’s serious message is delivered with much humour.

Then there’s Tek Yuh Han Off A Mi, written by Michael Dawson, the local producer of Cock Tales. He also wrote the song of the same name that’s performed by Queen Ifrica. The play deals with domestic violence. And it attempts to free men and women trapped in co-dependence. It’s on today at 6 o’clock at the Jamaican Shopping Club Theatre.

blow-the-whistle-for-truth-t-shirts-mens-premium-t-shirtDebra Ehrhardt’s Cock Tales couldn’t have come to Jamaica at a better time. The constant abuse of girls by powerful men in and out of the Church has now provoked national condemnation. I hope it’s not a nine-day wonder. The abuse of children really isn’t news. We’ve long known about it. But it’s often hushed up. Debra has certainly blown the whistle on this nasty issue. Very loudly!

The Bible says, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen are an abomination to the Lord.” Actually, no! That sentence does not appear anywhere in the Bible. It sounds like it should be in the Book of Proverbs. But it’s not.

Donald Trump’s right-hand woman, Kellyanne Conway, might very well insist that it’s there in the Bible. But that would be an ‘alternative fact’ – a downright lie from a shameless con artist.

Even though the Bible doesn’t condemn whistling women or crowing hens, supposedly holy men of God have used the ancient book for centuries to silence women and keep us in our subservient place. But women keep on putting up resistance fearlessly. In Cock Tales, Debra doesn’t pussyfoot around. She stamps on abusers and shamelessly crows down deviant men: Cock-a-doodle don’t!

Vybz Kartel’s Book For CXC

images-3Vybz Kartel’s arresting book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, co-authored with Michael Dawson of People’s Telecom fame, gives a penetrating account of the deadly conditions endured by too many youth who are barely surviving on the margins of Jamaican society. Claiming the authority of the traditional warner man, Kartel compels his audience to pay attention to his prophetic story. You just can’t put the book down.

Kartel’s intention is not to entertain but to upset: “As strange as it may sound, I hope you do not enjoy this book. I hope it disturbs you. I hope after reading you realise there is something wrong with Jamaica that needs to be fixed. I hope you will never look at a ghetto person the same again.”

Cynics have been asking if Kartel really wrote the book. They clearly have not listened to his songs. There’s an organic connection between the two: “… After seeing the crowd’s response to my conscious songs, I wanted to tell more of the story that I could not capture in three minutes riding a riddim. So I started writing, still unsure at the time if a book was what I wanted to do.”

Each of the 10 chapters amplifies the core concepts of selected songs. For example, chapter 1 is based on ‘Thank You Jah’:

Psalms 127 Selah,

Except di Lord build di house,

Dey labour in vain dat build it,

Except di Lord keep di city,

Di watchman watcheth, but in vain.

Thank yu, Jah, it’s just another day, selah,

It’s just another day,

Thank yu, Jah, mi wake up dis mornin

Roll out di herbs before mi start yawnin

Tun round buss a kiss pon mi dawlin

Tell har seh, “Honey, mi ah touch inna di steet.”

In di street mi see poor people bawlin

Nuff juvenile no even nyam from mornin,

“Weh di black woman future?”, me aks him

“Weh di system a do fi she”?

Now big up di gyal dem weh fight it alone

An ah raise two, three pickney pon dem own,

Weh di man deh? No man no deh home,

Babylon have dem inna jail.

Big up di juvenile dem inna di street

Weh a seh dem haffi make it

An nah touch di chrome!

Dem no waan wi fi claim our own,

But Africa nah form no fool inna Rome,

Ghetto youth, we go on and on

Babylon waan wi gone,

Hungry from morning til night come,

Dem waan wi fi live our life so,

Dem a wonder if di youth dem a go stop, no!

A wonder if di ghetto a go drop, no!

Dem a wonder if wi ketch inna di trap, no!

A wonder if Jah tun him back, no!

SAVAGES SAVING SOULS

‘Thank you, Jah’ is a prayer that every fundamentalist Christian in Jamaica can identify with – up to a point. Kartel chants his gratitude to Jah in Old Testament lyrics. But the song quickly changes tune and tone. ‘Thank you, Jah’ becomes a damning judgement on the failures of modern Babylon. Kartel’s invocation of the psalm is decidedly ironic.

images-1The Lord is certainly not keeping the city of Kingston. Babylon labours in vain to build a city founded on injustice. The so-called ‘system’ brutalises poor people in Jamaica. The profound philosophical question the song raises is whether or not ‘Jah tun him back’. Are ghetto people the victims of divine indifference, as Babylon hopes? The song condemns the conspiracy of Church and State to keep poor people in bondage.

In the book, Kartel has ample room to elaborate on the inequities of Jamaican society, especially the apparent willingness of the Church to postpone justice until ‘Thy kingdom come’. He gives a quick history lesson to demonstrate the origin of the racism at the root of imperial Christianity.

Christopher_Columbus3-1Kartel demolishes the myth of European conquest as a mission to save the souls of savages: “Sometimes, I wish Gaza was around in those days when these men came off their ships, dressed in their stockings, short pants and funny hats to tell Portmore people they are heathens so they should come and work for free and these men in stockings will show them salvation. I am confident you could stay from the toll road and hear those sailors begging for mercy when the Gaza done wid dem.” Although Kartel doesn’t want us to ‘enjoy’ the book, there’s lots of humour.

THE GARVEYITE AND THE BLEACHER

In a telephone interview last week, Michael Dawson explained his role in the creative process. He sees the book as a recording of the ‘reasonings’ between himself and Adidja ‘Vybz Kartel’ Palmer. In his ‘Preface’, Dawson admits the ironies of the project: “Many people have wondered how this improbable collaboration came about. How could someone who is a known Garveyite collude with the ‘Bleacher’ to write a book? … How did my Campion background find common ground with the Gaza?”

Dawson gives an intriguing answer: “I realised what Addi was reluctant to admit; that deep down he realised he had the gift of being a lyricist and the ability to put it on a dancehall rhythm like no one else had. He feared, however (my observation), that being known as a conscious artiste would gain him a label that he did not want.”

It was the opportunity to lecture at the University of the West Indies that changed Kartel’s mind. Wilmot Perkins must be turning in his grave. The ‘intellectual ghetto’ has clearly served its purpose, promoting dialogue between town and gown.

images-2The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto should be read in and out of school. It ought to be on the CXC social studies syllabus. It raises complex issues of social justice in an accessible way. This book will engage the attention of every student, from Campion College to Gaza Secondary. And Adidja Palmer needs to be given a fair trial. Quickly! Otherwise, we run the risk of turning Vybz Kartel into a political prisoner, fulfilling the expectation of the book cover.

Bleaching in Black History Month

images-2It’s Reggae Month and Black History Month, combination style.  Unless you have superhuman stamina, you cannot possibly keep up with all the events.  I’m not even trying.  I’ve selected a few and that’s it.  I have a day job and I simply cannot ‘bleach’.  Neither in English nor Jamaican.

Incredibly, the English words ‘bleach’ and ‘black’ seem to share a common origin.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, they both appear to come from a prehistoric language for which there are no written records.  This tongue has been reconstructed by linguists who see it as the ancestor of many of the modern languages of Europe and Asia.

cartelIn this ancient mother tongue, the word “bhleg” meant “to burn, gleam, shine, flash”.  The flash of fire became brightness as in ‘bleach’; and the burning produced darkness as in ‘black’. I can just imagine how pleased Vybz Kartel would be to realise that there is linguistic evidence for his paradoxical claim that bleaching is not necessarily a sign of self-hate.  It might actually be a most peculiar manifestation of blackness.

Seriously, though, I gave a paper yesterday at the International Reggae Conference held at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  Scholars from across the world came to Jamaica to reflect with us on “traditional and emerging expressions in popular music”.  I focused on Vybz Kartel’s insightful book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto.  And I mean ‘nuff’ insights.

images-3Co-author Michael Dawson, of People’s Telecom fame, admits that, “Many people have wondered how this improbable collaboration came about.  How could someone who is a known Garveyite collude with the ‘Bleacher’ to write a book”?  In the chapter “No Love for the Black Child” Kartel gives a sarcastic answer:  “Ironically, I lightened my skin and everyone condemned me.  All of a sudden there is an outpouring of love for black skin”.

Kartel elaborates the ironies:  “Some of my executioners are women with false hair, multi-coloured contact lenses or others who have been using various agents to ‘cool down’ their skin.  All of a sudden, after 500 years they start to love the Black Child?  Or is it me you hate?”

Adulterers and Homosexuals

images-4One of the most popular sessions of the conference was the Annual Bob Lecture, delivered by Alan ‘Skill’ Cole.  It wasn’t really a formal lecture, as the title made clear: “Bob Marley:  The Man That I Know”.  The talk was an intimate, wide-ranging celebration of an exceptional friendship.

This is how ‘Skill’ puts it in the programme notes: “I trained him . . . and we lived a life consistent with being a good athlete. . . . . We would wake up around 4:30-5:00 and train; eat, then go to the studio; then go sell records; come back, play some football and, in the night-time, write some music”.

skill4I missed a fair bit of the talk because I had a class. One of the moments I found most touching was Cole’s nostalgia about going to bathe with Bob some nights at a spring just above Papine.  I couldn’t help thinking that these days, two men bathing together would be a sure sign of ‘deviant’ behaviour that should be both bleached and burned.

Healthy relationships between men have been contaminated by fears of homosexuality.  In Black History Month, as we attempt to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, we really do need to look again at some of the Old Testament judgements that are completely irrelevant in the modern age. The book of Leviticus condemns adulterers but we conveniently ignore that inconvenient fact.  Why can’t we do the same with homosexuals?

Reggae Ambassadors

Another big event for Reggae Month is the launch today of the book Global Reggae. This is how Kwame Dawes describes it (and I didn’t pay him a red cent): “Carolyn Cooper has skilfully edited a book of startling visual design and intellectual depth that manages to demonstrate, through complex and varied voices, reggae’s astounding impact on the globe. The term ‘essential’ is used a lot these days, but sometimes it is a fit and righteous word to employ. Global Reggae is essential reading for anyone who is seeking to appreciate this great cultural phenomenon.”

GlobalReggaeCoverAll of the contributors to the Global Reggae compilation are authorities in their field: Kam-Au Amen, Peter Ashbourne, Erna Brodber, Louis Chude-Sokei, Brent Clough, Carolyn Cooper, Cheikh Ahmadou Dieng, Samuel Furé Davis, Teddy Isimat-Mirin, Ellen Koehlings, Pete Lilly, Amon Saba Saakana, Roger Steffens, Marvin D. Sterling, Michael Veal, Leonardo Vidigal and Klive Walker.

It was the Third World Band who popularised the idea of the “reggae ambassador”.  And they tell a now familiar story:

“So everywhere I jam it’s the same question

‘How can a big music come from a little island?’

When the music play[s] it leaves them in a state of shock

The big-big music from the little rock!”

The self-concept of Jamaicans certainly cannot be measured by the small size of our island. We’re much more than a little speck in the Caribbean Sea.  And it was Shabba Ranks who so vividly said that it is the talent of reggae and dancehall artists that enables them to “fly off Jamaica map”.

Dj_Afifa_Banner_by_Dr_JayBone_DesignzThe launch of the Global Reggae book takes place at PULS8, 38A Trafalgar Road, and starts at 6:00 p.m. The public is invited and admission is free.  Guest speaker is Michelle ‘DJ Afifa’ Harris, a doctoral candidate at the University of the West Indies, Mona and a very talented selector. Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jah 9, Protoje, No-Maddz and Cali P will perform.  If all goes well, the event will be streamed live on the Internet at UWI TV and will  be archived here:  http://tv.mona.uwi.edu/.  After all, Global Reggae is a big-big book that fly off Jamaica map.