IT CANNOT BE easy to conjure up the image of a Trinidad slum within Harvard's walls. It is much easier, in this frame of reference, to dwell on the rhythm of Carribean music or the island's luxurious beaches than to consider the realities of a life without money or opportunity, a life in which dreams are consistently stifled by a miserable reality. Yet it is precisely because it does not take this easy way out that the Leverett Arts Society's production of Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is so impressive. Without falling into bathos, the actors present a life far different from their own, forcing the audience to consider the small, human tragedies of a very different world.
The play focuses on seven tenants in a lower class section of Trinidad whose one-room shacks open onto a common yard. They are a disparate group: a family of four, a working single woman, a young man who dreams of leaving the island, a prostitute. Their interactions provide the basic fabric of the plot, but the play is always dominated by their material circumstances--the fact that they live near the bottom of a highly stratified society, and that there are very few paths out of the world symbolized by their yard.
Few paths, that is, except the circular one of giving in to domination. This is a route well traveled by the prostitute, and Lynee Gore's portrayal manages to suggest the personal degradation that accompanies her submission to money. And when the characters do not give in to the Yankee dollar, other forms of domination are there to demoralize them--some rich group or figure to control these tenants' lives. The petty bourgeois landlord, played by James Young, is always present, always ready to evict those who hate him. So the question, for these tenants ultimately becomes one of self-respect; if they cannot rise out of the yard, they must learn to live without abandoning hope entirely.
AGAINST A background of degredation, then, the rest of the yard's intimates live out their lives. As Sophie, a mother of two and the wife of an unemployed athlete, Martina Miller appears completely unsympathetic at first, a strident busybody who bitches without reason or mercy. Gradually, however, another side of her character emerges: trapped in a life of broken dreams, she is seen as the only force holding her family together. As her husband Charlie, Rick Guthrie is a broken dreamer, unable to produce the money the family needs to supplement their daughter's newly won scholarship, while Nikki Harris, as the daughter, cannot accept the emptiness of the opportunity the government has offered her.
Still another couple inhabits the yard, finally: two young adults on the verge of making decisions that will determine the course of their lives. As Ephraim, a young man who leaves Trinidad in frustration, Roland Smart communicates that anger forcing him to abandon his pregnant lover is justified. But as his lover, Karen Ford presents the other side of the same suffocating reality. He may be free to leave; she is trapped, forced to give in, obliged to abandon her dreams of self-respect and upward mobility.
The acting in Rainbow Shawl is not consistently superb, but very close to it; and any flaws are obscured by both Karl Bostic's straightforward direction and the production's smooth-flowing pace. The plot is not terribly sophisticated or complex. It depends more on empathy with the characters' situation than on theatrical gimmicks--on good acting more than on technical ploys. That empathy is certainly created here. As hard as it may be to evoke the image of a Caribbean slum in the ivy-covered walls of a Harvard House, it can be done. The Leverett Arts Society has managed it, and managed it convincingly.