A group portrait of lives veering between dismay and hope, “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” is a neglected 1953 drama by African-Caribbean writer Errol John. Beyond the fascination of its Trinidad setting, the writing is governed by the fact that John was primarily an actor more skilled at creating kaleidoscopic characters than advancing drama. Michael Buffong’s loving but indulgent direction in this National Theater production does nothing to advance the action in the laboriously expository first half but once everything is set up, the richness of the performances takes over to satisfying effect.
If good fences make good neighbors, what does that say about the broken-down divisions between the four houses facing each other on Soutra Gilmour’s traverse-style set? In this evocative, ramshackle back yard in Trinidad’s Port of Spain, green plants burst out of every nook and cranny suggesting the lush life that its inhabitants yearn to live. They also act as a contrast to the poverty that controls all the characters.
On one side is Ephraim (Danny Sapani), who scrapes by working on buses. He, however, is on the brink of realizing the dream that most of the characters share: Escape. He is preparing to leave for a new life in Britain, a move that means abandoning everything and everyone including his beautiful young neighbor Rosa (a watchful Jade Anouka), with whom he has been having an affair.
Above him lives preening prostitute Mavis (comically self-aggrandizing Jenny Jules, having a ball), who sashays about the place giving everyone a tongue-lashing. In particular she has little time for well-meaning but feckless Charlie (Jude Akuwudike) and even less for his long-suffering, pragmatic wife Sophia (Martina Laird). In a scrupulously unsentimental performance of riveting detail, Laird not only shoots looks of disapproval like arrows, she makes Sophia the heart and conscience of the entire community populated by more than its fair share of hangers-on.
Financially superior to them all, but morally weaker, is landlord Old Mack (beautifully growling Burt Caesar). He’s quietly determined not only that all his rent will be paid no matter what, but that Rosa will capitulate to his desires.
Part of the problem of John’s dramaturgy is too much generosity. He’s determined to give every character, in every sense, a season in the sun. That’s a problem exacerbated by Buffong, who allows his actors far too much space to illustrate their characters thinking through dilemmas and decisions.
Unearned pauses that litter the first half are intended to indicate the heat and slowness of their lives, but they merely slacken things. Toward the end of the first half, however, we learn of a moment of madness by Charlie, an act that finally galvanizes everything with dreadful repercussions ensuing for nearly everyone.
With tension tightening, the second half is infinitely stronger. John’s balancing act of characters acquires depth after suffering from predictability. Ray Emmet Brown is very funny as Mavis’s ambitious but dim boyfriend and Tahirah Sharif is touchingly open as the sunny 11-year-old Esther, who is too young to have been ground down like her family.
However, it is Laird, as Sophia, who holds together not just everyone’s lives but the whole play. In a performance that makes you long to see her in Chekhov, she makes you feel extreme tiredness and forgiveness without ever emoting or opting for mere display. It is to the entire cast’s credit that despite Sophia’s moving collapse, the production’s abiding feeling is one of warmth.