Review: ‘Jean and Dinah – The Play’ at The Essential Theatre

A disheveled bedroom in Port of Spain, Trinidad — home to the nearly incapacitated Dinah – is playwright Tony Hall’s incubator for an important and wide-ranging drama about the destructive effects of colonization and misogyny. His searing piece, Jean and Dinah – The Play, is a generation old, but a splendid new production by The Essential Theatre raises issues that seem as fresh and relevant today as they were when the play premiered over 20 years ago.

Penelope Spencer and Rhoma Spencer as Jean and Dinah. Photo courtesy of The Essential Theatre.

The two-act, two-person  drama takes its name from Calypso king Mighty Sparrow’s 1956 song, Jean and Dinah, commenting (from a male point of view) on the plight of Trinidad’s sex workers subsequent to the closing of America’s military bases in Trinidad following World War II. Jean and Dinah, each in her own way, have to face the consequences of their former lives and of their own rivalries on their aging and compromised bodies.

Jean arrives at Dinah’s home on Jouvay morning, the dawn of Carnival Monday, to coax her friend out to participate in the festivities as they have done for forty years.  But Dinah, after decades of hard living, is reluctant to leave her bed.  In the emotional push-pull that follows, both women review their lives, revealing the sources of their pain and sorrow, often with humor and accumulated wisdom.

The second act transports us back to 1950s, when Jean and Dinah vamped as sailors in the spirited Carnival masquerades. Caribbean Carnival festivities — vivid, creative mélanges of European and African traditions —  are staged annually not only in the Caribbean, but wherever there are significant expat communities. Hall’s evocation of Carnival teases us with brilliant bits of mockery. Fair warning:  these traditions often include a bit of audience involvement!. It is also punctuated by pathos as Jean prowls among the Carnival spectators, looking vainly for the father of her child.

Penelope Spencer as Jean and Rhoma Spencer as Dinah offer superb performances as the title characters, each embodying strength, vulnerability, love, anger, pride, denial, truth, and destructive impulses. Through their eyes, we begin to understand, from the inside out, the corrosive effects of subjugation, and the resilience that is required of women attempting scratch out a living under difficult circumstances.

Interestingly, Penelope and Rhoma are real-life cousins who played their roles in the original production. Rhoma helped Tony Hall conduct interviews with women who inspired the character that she plays.

They are joined onstage by master percussionist Modupe Onilu (performing an original score by the renowned Tamba Gwindi ) who underscores the play’s surging  emotions and calypso beat while never overpowering the action. Tony Hall’s astute direction coaxes beautifully nuanced performances from his talented actresses and from his supremely versatile musician. Watching Jean and Dinah drink in Onilu’s calypso rhythms that seduce and animate their bodies, making them momentarily young and lithe again, is one of the most stirring moments of the evening.  Their efforts are complemented by sensitive lighting and staging by Ken Joseph.

Costuming  is crucial to the story’s impact, and Tessa Alexander hits the mark – beginning in the first act  where Dinah’s torn nightgown, a metaphor for her physical state, is counterpointed with Jean’s attempt to retain a bit of glamour with her spirited, if shopworn,  ensemble. The pair’s carnival costumes in the second act combine baggy, clownish Western sailor suits with splangly African-themed decorations, a splendid visual reminder of the syncretism that characterizes Carnival.

If you aren’t used to the expressive qualities of the Trinidadian Creole language, The Essential Theatre helpfully provides a glossary of words used by the characters as well as background on the Carnival traditions and characters in the play. Both allow you to follow the dialogue while appreciating the richness of the language and the culture.

The Essential Theatre is a non-profit, professional theatre that focuses primarily on works that reflect the African-American experience and celebrates America’s rich, diverse cultural landscape. This production is a welcome addition to DC’s summer play scene. While Tony Hall’s work provides us with an in-depth look at a particular place and moment in time, the issues it raises about the effects of inequality are truly universal.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. 

Jean and Dinah – The Play plays through June 18, 2017, at The Essential Theatre performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006, or purchase them online.

Note: Click here for directions to the theatre.

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