A Trinidad Haunting

When Truth Dared To Strut Its Stuff


Tony Hall picked a good time to resurrect the ghost of Gene Miles.
In the season of Divali’s symbolic triumph of light over darkness, when yet another Commission of Enquiry is holding forth, when the air hangs heavy with the corrupt stench of insider deals and when the public servant is in retreat against the politicians, the time is right for the return of the dramatic Miss Gene Miles. As she hits the stage with Calypso Rose’s Fire, Fire, her flaming red dress burns a memory of our collective shame; her stiletto heels kicks a stab to our collective conscience.
For six days in July 1966, 45 years ago, the flambuoyant Miss Miles took the witness stand in a Commission of Enquiry into the infamous gas station racket to accuse her boss, Kenneth Tam, Senior Factory Inspector in the Ministry of Petroleum and Mines, of wrong-doing in the award of gas station licences. She was a woman with every reason for confidence- smart, sassy and sexy, frontline supporter of the party in power, media darling and friend of people in high places.
Assured by the swagger of Gene Miles’ brass, truth dared to strut its stuff, confident in its power to prevail. It didn’t. After six years of degradation and savagery, the kind reserved especially for women, Gene Miles died in December 1972 at the age of 42, a woman broken in body, mind and spirit.
And now in 2011, in the days preceding All Souls, Gene Miles is returned to life, bouncing onto the stage on our national consciousness, breathing fire as she takes us through her life, almost literally from start to finish.
In Miss Miles, Tony Hall opts for autobiography, chronologically told, a decision that is both the strength and weakness of the play.
In itself, the life and death of Gene Miles constitute a compelling human drama. Through her eyes, we encounter the irony of the baptismal promise, the innocence of the child she was, the early spunk, the legacy of a corruption-busting public servant father, the blossoming of the Catholic girl into a woman at the height of her powers of persuasion, until the dramatic descent into the void of nothingness.
Cecelia Salazar’s triumph is in taking us along on a credible journey through the life of Miss Miles, getting us at every stage, to suspend and believe. She is what she plays, in a one-woman tour de force that requires range and depth of acting skill, musical ability and sheer, perhaps even bruising, emotional and physical energy.
In the hands of director Tony Hall, less succeeds in delivering more. Lighting, music, projected images and emblematic costume (including Miss Miles’ famous wigs) are employed to fill in and to carry the story in a set defined by its efficiency of resources.
There are moments of brilliance in the script. For those who knew the Gene Miles story, the baptismal scene was a thing of beauty in its irony. There is a tantalizing nugget in the anecdote about a visit to the Doctor Leader followed by an accusation about pimping. Ol’ talk or researched fact? It would be worth knowing.
But autobiography has its perils. Within the construct of a two-hour drama, the script editor must decide which detail to include, which to exclude; which detail moves the story forward, which adds nothing. Ultimately, the final script is shaped by those elements of the protagonist’s life that are relevant to the point of the unfolding drama. The question is: what is the drama before us?
The drama of Miss Miles is the tragedy of Gene Miles (1930-72), a woman confident in the power of truth only to be defeated by the ugly truth about power. As autobiography, the story begins and ends with her. Death seals her lips. Except when, in an act of mercy, Hall allows her one last future laugh, a moment of triumph in the signature spirit of Gene Miles.
Thirty nine years after her death, however, the real drama of Gene Miles transcends the finality of death and the limits of autobiography. It lives on in our fear of the truth, the instinctive alignment with power, the unchecked corruption involving public resources, the silent acquiescence and quiet subversion of an impotent public service, routine injustice as a national spectator sport, and a general failure to protect the weak and defenceless.
The real tragedy of Gene Miles is that her story could be our own story any day. In 2011, Gene Miles is not dead; she lives. But putting that on stage is a whole different play.

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