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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, July 24, 2024


Editor's note: For an update on language and other changes made in the play for its St. Thomas run, click here for the main page story titled "Playwright cleans up his acts in face of flak".
"Smile, Natives, Smile," David Edgecombe's new play which opens at the Reichhold Center for the Arts Friday for a four-night run, is not, in the narrow sense, about either smiling or natives of its setting – which just happens to be St. Thomas.
It should not, certainly, be confused with Jamaican playwright Trevor Howard's 1970s classic about local life in a tourism-dependent community, "Smile Orange."
Edgecombe's two-act, two-actor drama operates at two levels of consciousness – the immediate situation of the protagonists and the wider society in which they interact.
To summarize in two sentences: 1. It's a good yarn, effectively evolved from start to somewhat startling finish. 2. It's peppered with four-letter words and their gerund derivatives that, in the view of a number of previewers of the play, are almost entirely expendable for the subject matter content and intent of the dialogue.
The play spans several late-night hours in the life of a University of the Virgin Islands faculty member and one of his former students, set in the living room-kitchen of the professor's apartment. As it opens, Julian John is packing his possessions to catch a plane the next morning. Unexpectedly, his former student, Hilda Birch, arrives and invites herself in over his objections.
Their opening conversation establishes emotional and experiential planes that seem barely to intersect: His anger is equaled only by his sarcasm. Hers is a banal banter seemingly aimed at baiting him further.
The background, the audience learns as the story progresses, is that the young American woman, an aspiring novelist, once heard him lecture at the Smithsonian at a symposium on Caribbean culture. Aware that her great-grandfather owned a plantation in Nevis before he moved to Virginia, she resolved to explore her island roots by enrolling in a course taught by John at UVI.
She wrote a term paper on "Neo-slavery in the United States Virgin Islands" for his class. He gave it a grade of D. She protested, arguing that it was an A paper. He offered to up the grade to C, B or A if she would engage with him in the consensual acts of X, Y or Z. She filed a sexual harassment complaint with university officials, then agreed to drop it if he would change her grade. The administration begged him to comply, to stem the embarrassing publicity.
He told the university, in essence, f – – – you. (He says that a lot, and calls Birch every American and Caribbean name in the book.) Next thing you know Time, Newsweek and CNN had headlines all over the place about the "radical professor" who "bad-mouths tourism" and is on a "campaign to disrupt racial harmony in St. Thomas." And so, now, further bad-mouthing "the mental midget faculty that's only too happy to help you kill me," he is leaving UVI.
When Birch insists on ironing some of his clothing before he piles it into suitcases, simultaneously seeking "closure" on their relationship, John imposes ugly slave/master role playing, and she complies. But another reality intrudes: Not only is she writing a novel; he has written three and has failed to get any of them published. He rails that she can steal his ideas and get them in the New Yorker while he wouldn't be able to get a manuscript "read by a janitor because I'm from the Caribbean and we're not supposed to be good for anything other than serving up piña coladas with a wide smile."
In tears, she wins the battle for closure as Act I ends, or so it seems.
Act II picks up the same conversation, now oddly mellowed. "What's true for me and about me is so different from what's true for you," John says. "We may as well be living in two separate worlds." Birch replies, "But we don't."
The shorter second act becomes one of revelations – not only of developments but of motivations, as John invokes inspiration from Derek Walcott and Monica Lewinsky. The denouement brings "closure" for the audience as well as the protagonists, in tolerance and acceptance if not in a real comfort zone.
This is a play that is almost entirely words, with little action. Edgecombe has described the work as "an exploration of the biggest social problem we have – racism. We must confront it if we are to reduce its existence." While few would contest the latter statement, a number of those who have previewed "Smile, Natives, Smile" or read the script found the work to be more about manipulative behavior in what is perceived as an unlevel playing field – an issue that goes beyond racism.
Edgecombe's last play produced at the Reichhold Center, where he has been the director since the early 1990s, was the post-hurricane drama "Marilyn." It was, he noted at the time, his first venture into creating a major caucasian American character. This is his second, and he appears to have taken a more relaxed, confident approach. In fact, the only thing out of character for his "Smile" protagonist is a minor irritation in "Marilyn" as well – his choice of names.
In "Marilyn," we had Milton Christian – a name with a nice West Indian ring that would come off as an oxymoron in New York and several centuries out of date playing in Peoria. In "Smile," our continental is Hilda. Most likely of English descent, she is saddled with a Germanic/Scandinavian monicker that conjures up images of busty blondes in horned helmets (a la, yes, Hagar the Horrible's wife).
But this is a small nit to pick.
Having previously directed his own plays in local production, Edgecombe this time called on George H. Brown of Texas Christian University, a onetime artistic director at Island Center on St. Croix. The two have worked together previously – Brown directed Edgecombe's "Heaven" in 1992.
Edgecombe also ended up bringing in two New York-based professional actors, although that was not initially the plan. St. Lucian-born Alvin Hippolyte, who teaches theater at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, portrays John. American Debbie Blossom, in her first Caribbean drama, appears as Birch.
The play is dedicated to local actor Jerome Kendall, who has appeared in most of Edgecombe's plays, and to Renee Heider, Edgecombe's right-hand woman at the Reichhold for three years before she left in June of 1999. Kendall – whose name appears on posters promoting the show – was to have played John but had to bow out late into rehearsals due to a death in his family.
The play had its world premiere in Edgecombe's homeland, Montserrat, Aug. 19-20, then was performed as part of the Carifesta arts festival on St. Kitts Aug. 22-26, and in Antigua Aug. 27-28. This weekend's performances – Friday through Labor Day Monday – constitute its American premiere.
"Smile, Natives, Smile" was to have been the final production of three in the Reichhold Caribbean Repertory Co. summer season, which opened in late June with St. Lucian playwright Kendell Hippolyte's "Triptych," which Hippolyte himself directed. However, plans to present Tony Hall's "Jean and Dinah" at the end of July were dropped.
Curtain time for "Smile, Natives, Smile" is 8 p.m. The audience will be seated on the stage. Tickets are $15 general admission and $7.50 for students with I.D. (Parental discretion is needed because of the blue language.) They're available at the Reichhold box office as well as at Krystal & Gifts Galore, Modern Music (Havensight), Parrot Fish Music and the UVI bookstore. Charge-card purchases may be made
by calling 693-1559. A survey of outlets indicated that Saturday night tickets were running in short supply.

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