Aesthetically Speaking

Queen Nanny play chronicles Jamaica’s Maroon struggle

"When I first heard about Maroon culture…I had no idea these incredible people ever existed." So notes Elisha Whittington In the Heart of Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) company member who con "When I first heard about Maroon culture…I had no idea these incredible people ever existed." So notes Elisha Whittington In the Heart of Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) company member who conceived and, with Twin Cities luminary Djola Branner, directs HOBT's not-to-be-missed production Queen Nanny, Queen Nanny. Whittington further states in the show's playbill, "Ever since, I've wanted to tell everyone about how these people, though faced with extreme adversity, escaped slavery and clandestinely [conducted] fruitful lives. I [became aware of]…. Queen Nanny, a thin, wiry woman who [led] Maroons on the windward side of Jamaica."

Queen Nanny, Queen Nanny shares Whittington's 1982 awakening with many of us who, because world history is selectively recorded, wouldn't even know the name of this 18th Century martyr who, to this day, is revered throughout Jamaica as an enduring, national icon. True, scholars and other fortunate folks know of, among other sources, Karla Gottlieb's book-length historical analysis The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny (Africa World Press). Folk lacking ready access to rarefied circles, specifically those in the Twin Cities, are indebted to Whittingon and HOBT for a theatrical experience that enlightens oldsters and youngsters alike, helping to set humankind's record straight. How many more such significant truths remain obscured there's veritably no way the common man, woman or child can know.

Queen Nanny left her homeland to rescue other Africans from enslavement in Britain's colony in Eastern Jamaica. She sought out and was accepted by windward Maroons: slave ship and plantation escapees grouped as self-sufficient communities in remote regions inaccessible to the interloping oppressor (not unlike Apaches who fought European occupation of Native American land). Guerilla general, priestess and healer, Queen Nanny forged the revolting, half-starved populace of some 500 into a force that held at bay for 12 years thousands of well-provisioned soldiers from what then was the world's greatest army. At which point Gen. William Stoddard had no choice but to sue for peace.

In the Heart of Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre does this historic figure handsome justice. Beside a water-filled cauldron, on a hot Ghanain night, Queen Nanny calls upon the powers of the Obeah. Sans heat, the water boils. Ancestors reply, sending her on a virtually sacred mission to liberate those who are born to her blood. Applying HOBT's accustomed visual magic and faithfulness to culture, Queen Nanny, Queen Nanny, renders, in puppetry, mask and costume, images culled from Ghana and Jamaica to tell a tale of miraculous heroism. No less a craftsman than deservedly vaunted, artist Ta’Coumba Aiken provides the set. The idea and visual execution, including performance by dance maestro Patricia Brown and the impressive Roxane Wallace delight the eye. Whittington provides serviceable masks, but gives the puppets exquisite design. Costumer Karen Nobel knows what she's doing. The production transcends Djola Branner's woefully pedestrian script, a rudimentary exercise in facts for the intellectually challenged. HOBT departs from its trademark respect for young minds to inexplicably indulge simplistic dialogue.

Queen Nanny, Queen Nanny surpasses tedious writing in that its plot is out of the author's hand and compels through adherence to the original drana. Additionally, it doesn't take an expert in dance to glean that the fascinating movement of Patricia Brown and Roxane Wallace excel beyond Branner’s uninventive choreography. You pretty much can find the same broad strokes put to better effect in any of the long outmoded Tarzan movies. Brown and Wallace, thankfully, give static material vibrancy. Percussionist Aaron

January 27, 2003
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