'Old Story Time'
Beryl Clarke, Contributor
Beryl Clarke, Contributor
I am picturing, even as I write, an old man, still sprightly, full of humour or should I say 'joke' as he begins the drama of Old Story Time. How do you see him, and have you thought of the setting in which these characters meet now to listen to Pa Ben, as well as of the community in which they live? From your reading, and I do hope you have done your first reading either by yourself or in class, you must have some ideas about setting.
Their village is small but it boasts a school, a post office and a church; there is also a river. These aspects of the setting are all relevant to the way the play develops. Len does well enough in his local school to earn a scholarship to high school, and the post office becomes a place of great interest to Len's mother when he is studying abroad as she anxiously waits to hear from him. The minister of the church is a 'brown' man and he is socially important and greatly admired by Miss Aggie because of his colour. It is her deepest desire and greatest wish that her son should marry the pastor's daughter. This, as you know, puts Len in a pickle. The river has its place here, too. Do you remember where Miss Aggie finds Len when she returns from market? Yes - he is in the river playing with Pearl.
The pieces of furniture we see in the beginning tell us that Miss Aggie is poor. As part of the staging, notice that the same pieces of furniture are used for different purposes in different scenes. While this makes for ease in scene changes, it may also hint at the diverse uses that are made of what one has because of being poor.
At the start of the play we meet no one in the village who is financially well-to-do. Those who gather to hear and participate in sharing the drama are simple folk. Pa Ben, who does not appear to work or to have much money; Miss Aggie is a haggler, then there is her son, Len, and his schoolmate Pearl. Miss Aggie's house is made of wattle and daub, a type of building which by this time was disappearing from the housing landscape in Jamaica. This small group comes together to open the pages of our history. I believe that you will learn much about us from Old Story Time.
You should not be surprised at the themes that are explored in our play for they reflect the Jamaican character then, and to a great extent today. While we will not begin to examine them in this week's 'class', please identify them for future discussion.
My mind goes once more, as it has before, to the question of the playwright's reasons for choosing this title. You may have thought of it, too. The word story conjures up certain ideas. A story is a make- believe account, a fairy tale; it can also be a factual account, as in a media report. A story may be created from truths and/or real occurrences. In other words, while the characters in the story are not real, what they do and say are what real people do and say. So, in this play we do find out about the racial situation at the period in which it is set, the belief in obeah, a bit about the education system and about teenage pregnancy. This title, therefore, suggests that the audience sitting in the theatre watching Pa Ben, Miss Aggie, Len, Pearl, Mr 'Mongoose' McFarlane, Lois and Miss Margaret will learn something about our past. I believe, too, that the word 'story' hints at the humour that is very much a part of the Jamaican consciousness. All of us enjoy a good story, both to tell it and to listen to it.
This play focuses on the dream of a poor mother to have her one child, a son, rise out of the poverty and the low social status into which he was born. She is convinced that their black skin is a hindrance to achievement and upward mobility and sees education as his only way to a successful future. In addition, she believes that he can cement his improved position by marrying a brown-skin girl with 'tall hair down her back'. Like many Jamaican mothers then and now, she struggles and she makes sacrifices to give Len the support he needs.
Some instances of humour that we meet are painful even though they provoke laughter as we watch her try to do her best. It might seem ridiculous to us to hear that she does not even want a black fowl in her yard, but you should realise that her attitude is the result of living the reality of being black and receiving a certain kind of treatment. Do speak to persons who were born in the '30s and '40s, perhaps even before, and you will find out how much skin colour mattered and its effect on one's self-confidence.