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Riot Act - A Musical of Historic Proportions

Riot Act explores Tacky's act of revolution

Riot Act is the latest play written and directed by Michael Holgate. The musical was recently staged at the Philip Sherlock Centre by the University Players. Riot Act is certainly timely, and attempts to start a much-needed conversation that is relevant not only to Jamaica, but to the entire African Diaspora. The play sets itself squarely in the current discussion about the 1865 rebellion and reparations. 

Though his works are far from perfect, one has to admire Holgate’s willingness to explore relevant cultural issues in ways that are engaging and entertaining, even if they usually have too romanticized a view. DBurnz as the fire blazing rastaman

The play opens with news that a riot has broken out based on an exhibition, which puts it on shaky ground, because, let’s face it, while there has been unrest associated with public monuments (the proposed National Monument at the Harbour View Round-About by Alvin Marriott  will probably never be finished and Christopher Gonzales’ Bob Marley will possibly always stay on private property safe from too much the public scrutiny) our exhibition spaces are not sufficiently engaged with the public to cause unrest. 

Fortunately, Riot Act is made of sterner stuff, and the premise works well enough with the playwright’s over-arching message, that we quickly move to more solid ground. In Riot Act visitors to a museum are held hostage by the ghost of Jamaican/Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, who aims to help them understand themselves.

“Better possession than puppetry,” says the ghost of Boukman before going on to declare that, “thinking is not for puppets”. The line is a beautiful answer to the British Prime Minister’s recent insult to the nation, by offering us a prison rather than reparations, and it is Riot Act’s major message, at present, we have too many puppets and only when we possess ourselves can we move on. 

At its core, Riot Act is a history lesson and so, not surprisingly, there are a few moments when it gets a little too preachy (especially as the play seemed unable to help itself with all of the information is was trying to squeeze in). Generally, however, it handles the material skillfully.

SK Burns as Madda B and Hanif Lawrence as Dutty BoukmanA huge part of this is that the story surrounds interesting, though uncomplicated, characters. Riot Act presents itself as a confrontation between different types of Jamaicans, and because of that, it peddles in stereotypes: the fire-blazing rastaman, the over-educated but out of touch, the miseducated and disaffected, and the spiritual. While the play hints at interesting backstories that would make for far more intriguing characters, it neve goes there. Yet its use of stereotypes is forgivable because it does so deliberately, declaring this from the opening of the play.

It is important to note however, that though there are prominent female characters in the play, it is most deliberately about Jamaican black masculinity. This is both disappointing and problematic, not because there is anything wrong with staging a play about this issue, but rather because it pretends to be more inclusive.

Riot Act allows Paul Bogle, Sam Sharpe, two of the four national heroes of Jamaica associated with bloody revolutions. Holgate also adds the story of Tacky, another revolutionary, whom many believe should have been made a national hero. Yet, Holgate simultaneously silences Nanny of the Maroons and George William Gordon. In creating these silences, Riot Act becomes complicit in recreating the very hegemonies it tries to disrupt. 

Royane Green and Faybian Grizzle play out a slave auctionDespite this, there are many areas in which Riot Act succeeds. Among them is the choreography which is striking, not so much for the movement, which are merely decent, but rather for the way it seamlessly blends into the story’s development. The use of ring games as a motif to impart ideas as well as question the games themselves and the wider society is well played.

Vocally, the performers are merely competent, but the rhythms and melody are engaging and the lyrics are worthy of your attention. The cast, which includes SK’ Burns (Madda B), Dburnz (Luthas Dusell), Royane Green (Willard Jenkins), and Faybian Grizzle (Danny Dusell), deliver competent performances. The play also benefits from good scene (Aisha Robinson) and lighting design (Elisha Ellis). 

Riot Act is a metaphorical call to action to Jamaicans, not for them to rise up and take to the streets, but rather to rise up and educate themselves about our history and its implications in our contemporary realities. This is an entertaining and timely play. As a musical, it takes a reasonably light look at a bloody section of Jamaican history, and so, yes there is singing and dancing, but who says you can’t dance while holding a revolution.