By JAMES LEE WAH
I first saw Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play in the 80s when, if my memory serves me right, Trevor himself brought his production, I believe to The Little Carib Theatre. I remember enjoying it but I did not think it was a great play. Recently, in memory of Trevor’s passing, I had to direct it for the San Fernando Theatre Workshop and nothing focuses the mind as much as directing. I now believe it to be a great piece of writing and a gem of a play. I believe all West Indian men and women should read it or better yet see it. Why? Because it is an intelligent and thoughtful dissection of one of the most important institutions of the Caribbean, namely marriage. It provides interesting answers to vexed questions like: – “What do women want?” or “What do men want?” and not forgetting “How to satisfy a woman?”
Let me start at the beginning to take a look at that intriguing title- Two Can Play. The simplest interpretation is that Rhone is describing his ability and his decision to write a play with only two characters, a theatrical feat. He affirms that two are enough to build a drama with. But one can’t resist the feeling that there is more to the title than that. I think Rhone is playing with our minds, playing in fact with the word, play. Not only double entendre but perhaps quadruple entendre.
Play engages the major portion of our lives. We spend so much of our lives fantasizing. That’s why we invented television. Think of the countless fictions we regale ourselves with until sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between fiction and reality. In fact, fiction has a reality of its own.
The word “play” is used in a bewildering variety of contexts. Sometimes meaning is elusive. “He is a player”, I heard recently. Does that refer to teamwork or something sinister? Play is also used in the vernacular in many ways e.g. “Play mas”, “Play the arse,” “Play whe”, “Play dead to ketch cobo alive”, “Play fair”, “Play dirty”, “Two can play that game”, “Two can play with themselves”.
Let me hazard a guess at Rhone’s intentions. He seems to imply that people, whatever their differences of gender, race or culture, can get together, can work things out between them and achieve a true partnership of equality and respect for one another. Perhaps something less than the mystical union of the Christian idea “Two shall become one flesh”, but something enduring and enriching.
Yes, we know marriage often does work, although increasingly in modern society the number of divorces is rising. But traditional marriages worked because women did not speak up and challenge the status quo. Rhone does not leave us with wishful thinking. He actually shows us a couple coping with the stresses and strains and learning, even though late in their marriage, how to have an exciting and productive relationship.
SET/ CHARCTERS/ STRUCTURE/ PLOT
I don’t know if Rhone wrote the play with these considerations in mind, but one notices an underlying symmetry in the play’s shape. The set has two main areas, the bedroom and the dining table, perhaps to reflect the basic preoccupations of married life, sex and food.
The play is constructed in two acts, each with its main movement or progression.
Act I depicts a movement away from the problems of daily life in Jamaica, ending with the decision to migrate.
Act II takes up story of the couple’s initiatives in outwitting the U.S. customs and immigration system. Gloria goes to the U.S.A. and succeeds in arranging a fake marriage to a U.S. citizen. But Gloria’s return to Jamaica precipitates a revolution in her marriage and leads to a reversal of the earlier decision to migrate. The focus of the second act becomes an examination of their marriage. Eventually new understanding leads to a rekindling of love. Simple! Clear! Effective plot! The old saying that character determines action holds true.
Jim and Gloria are ordinary folks. I mean that they are typical Caribbean people, lower middle class verging on the edge of poverty. Jim works as a telephone technician. Gloria is a “simple” housewife. They have managed by “hard scrabble” to build their own house and by even harder sacrifice to smuggle their children into the U.S.A. where they think opportunities for a better life exist.
Jim is the victim of traditional ideas of what being a man means. As “head” of the family, he sees himself as the boss, “The General”. He makes decisions, takes control, and lays down the law. His wife exists to provide his comforts i.e. sex, food, children as well as for cleaning and managing the house.
He plays the role with a certain flair. He is boastful and thinks highly of himself. One can imagine him holding forth on politics and life etc. among his friends when they meet at the rum shop. He has an “outside woman”. He sees himself as smart and being a good citizen, a good father and a good husband.
When we first meet her, Gloria is cast in the role of the traditional wife and mother, giving way to her husband in most matters. That is the conventional wisdom: – the man must lead. There are some indications, however, that she does not always agree with Jim’s decisions. When Jim sent the children to the U.S.A., he gave specific instructions that they shouldn’t attempt to communicate for fear that the illegality of their presence in that country would be discovered. But Gloria, with the help of Jim’s father, worked out a system to keep in contact through coded letters. When Jim is reluctant to go out at night to get medicine from a doctor to treat his ailing father, Gloria undertakes to go in his place. This is in keeping with the sacrificial role played by women whenever calamity threatens the family, whenever someone falls ill or dies. The woman is nurse and comforter.
THE MAIN THEME
At the end of Act I, after the trauma of having to brave gun battles in the streets of Kingston at night in order to get medication for his dying father and later after the near “Death at a Funeral” experience in order to bury his father, Jim proclaims “The …..politician and the ……. gunman not controlling my life anymore. I taking control.” His idea of taking control is pure escapism i.e. to migrate to the U.S.A.
It is Gloria, in her longing to see her children, who takes the initiative and does all the hard work to get to the U.S.A. and undertakes a fake marriage to a U.S. citizen. The trip to the U.S.A. opens Gloria’s eyes and on her return, she decides to “take control” of her marriage. She refuses to go into the same old relationship and lays down new rules.
“Is time you stop treating me like sh**t”,
“When I say no, I mean NO!”
“Is twenty years of feed meh, feed meh! Dat done”
“Why I shud mek you subject me to be nutten but a damn dishwasher?”
She condemns his selfishness. She insists that Jim does his share of cooking and cleaning. She wants to be courted again. Jim is totally confused by the new Gloria. Instead of coping with Jamaican politics, Jim finds himself contending with the politics of his marriage. One of the most interesting scenes in the play is a moment when they cook a meal together and reminisce about their early courting days when Jim used to take Gloria to the park to play cricket. Gloria expresses regret that Jim never allowed her to bat. Jim replies that women cannot bat and that their job is to field.
So old habits die hard. He tries to reassert his authority. Fortunately we are spared the violence and death that is usual in such situations. He vindictively smashes Gloria’s best plates. But the most telling blow to his macho self image comes when she tells him that he has never satisfied her sexually. In a rage, he tries (unsuccessfully) to rape her. At this point it seems that the marriage has ended.
But Gloria perseveres and prevails. Her adroit handling of the situation finally dismantles the role Jim has chosen for himself, the role of “The General”. He comes to a new appreciation of his wife’s value and out of the new understanding, love is rekindled.
What Rhone has done in this play is to give a voice to all women who throughout history have been devalued and undervalued by men. I said earlier that Jim and Gloria were ordinary folks. But Gloria emerges as a true hero. She exhibits a wonderful capacity to re-invent herself, liberate herself from oppression and transform a hopeless situation into a winning one.
She has rare intelligence and a clear vision of what is possible in the institution of marriage. She works with sensitivity and charm to dismantle her husband’s chauvinism and arrogance and to point him in the direction of love. She joins the ranks of those strong women who adorn our classics- “Sophie in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” and “Flossie in The Rose Slip”, women who are the salt of the earth, women who have the fortitude to endure suffering and deprivation, women who are betrayed and brutalized by men and yet continue to care and love and to hope. They exemplify Denyse Plummer’s calypso- “Woman is Boss”
Anything men can do (Girls can kick balls), women can do as well and often better.