A friend of mine called me
up and said: “I have two press tickets to a play called Play Mas by
Mustapha Mathura, a prominent Trinidad-born playwright here. As a Trini
I thought you would like to come.” Did I ever? I was intrigued. Why had
I not heard of Mustapha Matura? I checked him out. He was described by
the New Statesman as “the most perceptive and humane of black dramatists
writing in Britain.”
Born as Noel Matura in
December 1939, of mixed parentage in Trinidad, he changed his name when
he became a writer. He left Trinidad in 1962 and after a year working as
a hospital porter, he and fellow Trinidadian Horace Ové went to Rome
where he worked on stage productions such as Shakespeare in Harlem.
Matura thereafter wrote plays about the West Indian experience in
In his interviews he openly
says he writes about Trinidad almost as a way of overcoming
homesickness. Now that I knew who he was, I too, like Mustapha could do
with a little feel of home.
There is nothing like a
long winter for becoming completely maudlin about Trinidad. I was down
to asking friends and family on Skype if they spotted any poui flowers,
any immortelle? I longed to feel the sun on my face. Did coconut water
taste good; what the sun felt like on your face?
So I found myself at the
Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond on a freezing day. I soon felt the
warmth of the intimate theatre and settings. Here was familiarity. Oh
calypso. Steelband music. So gentle it felt like a breeze on a warm day.
On each corner of the tiny
theatre, I saw with a melting heart, street signs, “Woodbrook” “St
Clair” “Laventille” “St James.” Such is the power of art. It can
transport you back 65 years and lunge you geographically in the present
to the island you call home. Play Mas is set in a tailor’s shop in the
early 1950s in Laventille with three main characters around Carnival
time. Samuel, of African descent, is an apprentice of the Indian tailor
Ramjohn Gookool and Ramjohn’s mother Miss Gookool.
Ramjohn and his mother
treat Samuel more like a servant than an apprentice. Yet their mutual
affection and rapport is obvious. Their relationship shifts when
Carnival comes around and there is a buzz about a new leader called Eric
Williams. Samuel wants to play mas.
Ramjohn says: “Niggers only
like to chase down women and fight. They don’t want to know about the
world.” Samuel counters that “Coolies are NOT Trinidadians. They are
He takes time off one day
from work to hear Eric Williams speaking. He is indignant that the oil
companies get 75 per cent of the profit. That the locals get only a
quarter from their own. When Samuel insists he wants to play mas, Mrs
Gookool fires him.
Thereafter a number of
Carnival characters appear. Starting with Samuel, who shows up dressed
like an armed marine soldier and threatens to shoot both Ramjohn and his
mother and after he terrifies them, reveals he is in costume.
The midnight robber shows
up. Rum swigging female Bishop shows up. By 1963 the roles have
reversed. Samuel, a police inspector under the PNM, uses Ramjohn as a
pawn to find out about the guns, the trouble on the hill.
The playwright Mustapha
Matura has this to say about his character Samuel. “Samuel is the play
itself. He evolves in the play. He’s kind of riding the political wave
and a movement that is taking place in Trinidad at the time.
“This was from ’55 to ’60;
independence came in 1962. The African origin population had found a
champion—Dr Eric Williams who was socking it to the colonial powers.
What was happening in the ’50s was there were these were bright, hungry
boys. They were coming out of colonialism and they wanted to self-rule.
“It was a force you
couldn’t stop. So Eric Williams was a powerhouse and he knew how to
deliver a speech. He had a deadpan way of speaking and he loved to use
big words and the crowd loved it. Dr Williams got into power, but it got
all messy. I don’t think he was interested in the mechanics of
“There’s a wonderful story
that he used to sit down with his Chinese businessmen, playing poker and
eating ice cream and this is the PM of my country.”
I want to cringe every time
I hear the words “coolie” and “nigger.” I want to tell my English journo
friend that it’s not like that in Trinidad anymore. We have problems but
race isn’t one of them. It’s just a political divide.
Then I read that a man
called Anthony Mcleod, called a “stinking nigger” by United National
Congress (UNC) activist Jaishima Leladharsingh, has accepted
Leladharsingh’s public apology.
I read that many found the
Opposition Leader, Keith Rowley’s aim at the PM degrading to woman: “She
could jump high, she could jump low, she could drink this, she could
drink that, she could bark at meh dog, because I go ignore she cat.”
of the play. Nothing has changed. In fact, people living in Trinidad in
the ’50s had it good. We are still not interested in the mechanics of