For the first few moments of the theatre performance ‘The Last of the Redmen’ the viewer wonders what exactly its writer/director/actor Michael Gilkes is up to.
Gilkes, portraying an elderly almshouse inmate, rolls onto stage in a wheelchair, positions himself in front of a desk and begins to peel and eat two bananas. The first words out of his mouth are: ‘Damn it!’
What follows over the next two hours is a touching, if sometimes uneven, tribute to the early years for the artistic community in Georgetown, British Guyana. The performance is laced with some heavy social commentary in the form of a ‘trial’ later on.
The play was hosted at the newly-refurbished Harquail Theatre on 27-28 April as part of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation’s annual Cayfest celebration of the arts.
Taking on the first of six different roles in the one-man, two-act play Gilkes introduces himself as Roger Algernon Fitzwilliam Redman; an aging artist spending what’s left of his days in meagre accommodations.
Redman is speaking with an invisible reporter concerning his plans for an autobiography.
The first section of ‘Redmen’ plays like an old man’s lament, as the main character talks about the usual themes; the inadequacies of youngsters and government today, accompanied by wishes for the return of lost youth.
Redman then shifts his criticisms to the subjects of colonialism and race, before a projection screen behind him starts displaying stills of old photographs.
The photographs, accompanied by the elegant melodies of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky among others, help the elderly wheelchair-bound Redman tell his story, which according to a play synopsis is drawn from the biographical records of a real family.
One of the most striking images contains a photograph of a massive colonial home burning. Redman describes it as the great Georgetown fire of 1945.
‘That was the first sign that our beautiful city would never be the same,’ Redman said.
Eventually, he moves into a description of ‘Woodbine House’…a sort of birthplace of the arts in Georgetown, British Guyana akin to the Vesuvio of 1950’s San Francisco, which was then home-base of the Beat Generation.
Redman recalls the seven bedroom structure was free for visiting artists, Caribbean writers and philosophers of the time.
He also remembers his time in the Georgetown philharmonic, though sadly, the old man can no longer play his violin because of arthritis.
The first-act performance also has some humorous moments. Redman’s description of where islanders got the ice for their cool afternoon drinks is a nice bit of dark comedy.
The last ten minutes of the first act are spent on remembrances of Redman’s mother with more pictures of her and old-time Guyana displayed on the projection screen.
The second act starts with a much younger man, also portrayed by Gilkes, who enters the stage riding a bicycle.
Desmond Mansell is an example of the guys who hung around Woodbine House in the old days. He talks about picking up girls, waiting for a friend who is always late, and a party going on later that night.
Mansell isn’t on stage for long before he pedals off and Redman returns, still in his wheelchair. The next section of the performance is key as it depicts the death (‘suicide by homicide’) of Redman…symbolising the death of the Guyanese middle class.
Redman’s death is presided over in a trial in which Gilkes plays four characters: a judge, the defence attorney, the prosecutor, and a song and dance man.
This trial is held to decide whether Redman’s death was of his own making, or if it was brought about by society at large. Gilkes’ over-the-top portrayals of officialdom are amusing, but an audience member could find themselves getting lost quickly if they don’t pay attention.
In the end, Gilkes leaves the pronouncement of sentence for the audience to decide.
The performance at the comfortable Harquail Theater was good, although due to acoustics the early moments of the play were disturbed by someone talking near the entrance.
Theater officials also had to make an announcement about turning cell phones off during intermission after someone in one of the front rows answered their phone during the play.
The Cayman production team for ‘The Last of the Redmen’ included state manager Wendy George, design and props Henry Muttoo, set construction Edward Herd, backstage assistants Brendan Smith and Elizabeth Estrade, lighting was handled by Issac Rankine, and music and projectors were done by Fritz McPherson.