Sunday, 26 February 2017

Review Chigger Foot Boys

Peter Barker is impressed by a new Great War play charting how the experience of loyal Jamaican volunteers eventually strengthened the bid to break free from the British Empire

Chigger Foot Boys
by Patricia Crumper

The Domino Effect

When Britain entered the First World War, the British Isles were not the only islands dragged into the conflict.

For Britain still had an Empire, the envy of rival nations including Germany, and war against Britain triggered its own domino effect, drawing in its subjects, including over 15,000 West Indian volunteers, to fight for the mother country.   

Chigger Foot Boys is a timely reminder of the human role played in an inhuman conflict by the people of the West Indies who served in the British Armed forces but faced discrimination from their white colleagues and colonial masters as well as death.

Patricia Crumper's new play starts in a rum bar in Jamaica in 1914 where banter, dominoes and emotions are all played with.

Structured as a series of flashforwards, always returning to the Kingston bar, it tracks and backtracks through the Empire’s conflict: how it affected lives in Jamaica and beyond; how hopes were met and dashed and futures shaped.

Chigger foot boy is  a West Indian derisory term for the itinerant workers of the countryside,  boys too poor to afford shoes whose feet are afflicted by a blood-sucking bug, the chigger.  Mortie (played with wide-eyed honesty by Ike Bennett), a future army recruit, is up from the country for the first time, entering a Kingston rum bar.

Behind the bar is Medora (convincingly feisty Suzette Llewellyn), a strong-minded businesswoman .  She is pursued by handsome and worldly-wise Linton (Stanley J. Browne in an engaging perfomance), who is a career soldier.

They are joined by two middle-class brothers in their late teens and, like Mortie, future volunteers for King and Country. Charming Roy (John Leader), the younger brother and Rhodes-Scholar Norman (Jonathan Chambers), who later took the lead, rising up from the ranks of war veterans, in the fight for Jamaican independence.  .

From here there are highs, and then the predictable deaths -- punctuated by the institutional and personal racism that the chigger foot boys encountered fighting for an Imperial government which considered them only fit for labour battalions and almost entirely excluded them from the officer class. 

Some survived and. inspired by the leaflets of nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, started to make sense of their own lives.  

The future is really in Norman’s hands and Chambers gives a tender and complex performance. Where Medora’s independent spirit and Garvey-inspired radicalism are emotional drivers of the play, it is Norman’s speech towards the end which locates its guts.

“People like us, people who have bought into the illusion that we are better than those around us because the Empire pats us on the head and allows us a little education, we’re just grist to the mill. Cannon fodder. And the closer we are drawn to the maw of the machine, the deeper we look into its heart…".

Chigger Foot Boys is a gripping, vivid production with a strong cast, directed by Irina Brown. Set designer Louis Price uses the theatre's bare brick back wall as backdrop, decorated only with an outline map of Britain and one of Jamaica, both painted with the Union Jack. The turning pages of a calendar signal scene changes. 

The little known tale of the Jamaican contribution to First World War victory, its tragedies and consequences, is a story that deserves exploration.  Turning Chigger Foot Boy from an insult into a term of honour, the Chigger Foot Boys is a dramatically satisfying and thought-provoking green light play,

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