A Caribbean folktale brimming with themes of morality, colonialism and autonomy, Ti-Jean and His Brothers marked the opening performance of Tuesday Night Cafe Theatre’s (TNC) 2019-2020 season. TNC is a student-run theatre company associated with McGill’s English department, operating out of Morrice Hall. Running from October 16-19, Ti-Jean and His Brothers was written by Saint Lucian playwright Derek Walcott in 1957 and is directed by McGill student Deneille Guiseppi, whose Caribbean roots and love of folklore drew her to this particular play.
Set in a forest that is home to whimsical creatures and haunted by the Devil (Jacob Berk), the play revolves around the trials experienced by an impoverished mother and her three sons. The oldest brother, Gros-Jean (Deneille Guiseppi), is the strongest, yet proud to a fault, whereas second brother Mi-Jean’s (Ryan Chahri) shortcomings stem from his intellectual nature. Meanwhile, the titular Ti-Jean’s (Laura Quenneville) youth and bravery quickly laid the foundation for his character arc as an underdog. The three brothers were challenged to the seemingly unachievable task of making the Devil feel human in some way, whether it be through hunger, sadness, or anger. The Devil took on various identities and disguises throughout the play in order to torment the brothers and play on each one’s particular weakness. As Guiseppi herself revealed at the start of the play, the folktale draws parallels to the biblical story of David and Goliath – only in this story, Goliath is fixated on inflicting sadistic punishment.
As well as directing, Guiseppi also took a turn as an actor, performing the role of the mighty Gros-Jean. Her performance was one of the strongest, enhanced by natural and spirited body language that effectively conveyed Gros-Jean’s egoism. Mi-Jean, played by Chahri, is the second brother to face the Devil. Chahri was convincing as an academic spouting philosophical idioms, whose weakness appears to be the pride he takes in his own intellect. Quenneville took on the role of Ti-Jean, portraying the youngest brother with a proper amount of naivety and courage. Meanwhile, Camille Simon’s portrayal as the mother of these boys was understated and tender, effectively conveying the trials experienced by an impoverished and distressed mother.
Despite the care and devotion with which these roles were portrayed, the accents used by different characters varied significantly. It was unclear throughout the play whether or not the cast was supposed to be speaking with Caribbean accents, and a stable baseline would have enhanced the flow and believability of the story. In addition, while Ti-Jean and His Brothers centers upon an Afro-Caribbean family, all family members except Gros-Jean were portrayed by non-black actors. The racial composition of the cast was an obvious and unavoidable matter, especially in the context of the play’s thematic interweaving of race and colonialism.
Colonial themes were most heightened in scenes where the Devil took on the identity of a plantation owner (the “Planter”) in order to berate the brothers. These scenes had a disturbing quality, as the Devil’s antagonizing of Ti-Jean and his brothers aimed not only to torment them but capture their autonomy and personal freedom. Jacob Berk as the Devil had the most engaging performance in the play, in what was an admirable first dramatic performance. His conveyance of menace and anger was particularly captivating, even managing to startle the audience during certain scenes.
Alice Wu took on the role of Bolom, a strange character who does not appear to be either dead or alive. While her motives remain rather unclear throughout the story, her ability to gain human feeling is dependent on the challenge set to Ti-Jean and his brothers. Wu gave a dedicated performance despite Bolom’s confusing character arc. Samantha Ling and Rebecca Turner played various creatures roaming the forest, acting as the story’s narrators in addition to contributing a dimension of playfulness and light to the play’s dark themes. The relationship between the brothers and these animals was telling, as the respect each brother had for nature was correlated to their own common sense – a concept that certainly reverberates in today’s time.
The cast was quite small, matching the atmosphere of intimacy found in TNC‘s compact and warm location in Morrice Hall. The resulting ambiance allowed for audience members to feel as if they were in the play themselves, perfectly complementing the telling of a folktale such as Ti-Jean and His Brothers. Technical Directors Jet Elbualy and Michelle Yang, as well as Art Director Tom Ding, utilized this space skillfully while still managing to parallel the play’s tone. With limited space, the play’s set and props consisted only of simplistic items – a foliage-covered arch, wooden bench, and oil lamp – that evoked the story’s environment. Lighting was similarly straightforward, with spotlights shining on characters as they spoke. The otherwise dim lighting fit the mythical yet menacing tone of the folktale’s forest, in addition to enhancing the theatre’s intimate feel.
Meanwhile, the characters’ costumes were also simplistic and avoided marking the play within a specific time period. A notable reappearing aspect of the performance was the inclusion of drum beats at the end of scenes, signifying unease or anticipation for what was to come next. These drums were a welcome touch, signaling notable events or scenes to the audience while furthering the tension of the story.
Ti-Jean and His Brothers remained engaging throughout the performance’s running time of an hour and a half. Guiseppi’s ambition was undeniable, and her interpretation of the Caribbean folktale’s heavy thematic notions was an admirable effort. The resonance of the play’s comments on colonialism and racial power dynamics demonstrates the continued impact of Walcott’s commentary in today’s day and age. While the cast displayed commitment and respect with regards to the roles they performed, it is a shame that the actors whose experiences and roots more closely aligned with Walcott’s story were not also represented. Nevertheless, the narrative’s engaging unfolding and indispensable commentary on morality, colonialism, and identity made this play one worth seeing.
Tuesday Night Cafe’s 2019-2020 season continues with an original student production running November 14-16 and 21-23. For more information, visit their Facebook page.