TWO CAN PLAY by Trevor Rhone, directed by Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, with Karen Robinson and Malcolm Xerxes. Presented by Obsidian Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews to June 2, opens Friday (June 3) and runs to July 2, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Sunday 2 pm. $25-$35. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
How's this for a confidence builder?
Earlier this year, actor Karen Robinson finds herself in Jamaica and meets playwright Trevor Rhone. Years before, when there was talk that his play Two Can Play was going to be made into a film, Rhone had told Robinson that she didn't really trust herself as an actor. This time?
"I walked through the door and he said, 'You will make a lovely Gloria!'" laughs Robinson.
Whew. Gloria is one half of Rhone's comedic drama Two Can Play, a two-hander opening tomorrow at the Berkeley Street Theatre as part of Obsidian's season.
"I guess I do trust myself more now," says Robinson a week before opening night. "But it's still not enough. Especially after I read reviews."
She shoots me a nasty look.
"Just kidding. I don't read them. I ask a lot of questions during the rehearsal process. I always want to find things. I know there's a deeper truth somewhere. Hey, it wouldn't be fun if I ever thought, 'Now it's done.' There's always more, always better, always deeper."
All those things apply to Rhone's complex play. Gloria (Robinson) and Jim (Malcolm Xerxes) are a near middle-aged couple living in Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1970s. Political warfare has ravaged the neighbourhood, and they're terrified of leaving their home; they want to emigrate to the U.S. to join their children.
Robinson, who was born in England and moved to Jamaica in the early 70s, says Rhone has captured the feel of the era.
"He was an adult when he wrote it, and I was a child when I lived there," she points out. "My aunt and uncle came for dinner recently and we were comparing stories of Jamaica in the 1970s. I saw it through the rose-filtered glasses of childhood, whereas they were well-versed in what roles they had to take in order to survive the economic and political minefield that Jamaica was at that time."
Some things Robinson recalls vividly.
"Last night, in a scene where the phone rings, I heard it and said, "That's not right. That's not how phones rang in Jamaica back then."
She also loves that she gets to speak in the patois she grew up with - the one she spoke with friends, at home and at the market.
"It's weird seeing the patois put down on paper," says Xerxes, who was born in England to Jamaica-reared parents. "There are some bits where I think, 'That's not the way my mom would say it.' But it's more a matter of local idiom. And (director) ahdri zhina mandiela wants me to stress certain vowels because of my English accent."
The setting, says Xerxes, is all-important.
"It informs everything the characters do and say. Right at the beginning, a soundscape sets the scene. It describes how the temperature is affecting them, their emotional states."
Rhone's script marks the first time black theatre company Obsidian has ventured out of Canada or the U.S.
"It's important to mix in Caribbean drama," says Robinson. "We're all here as Canadians. We're made up of so many different aspects of the diaspora. The more diverse they get in terms of the plays they choose to produce, the wider an audience they can attract and the more relevant they are to the theatregoing audience."
It's been a terrific couple of years for Obsidian and other diverse companies, with shows like The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God (Robinson starred in the remount), 'Da Kink In My Hair and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf generating buzz.
"Ask anybody who's been in the city long enough and who cares about this sort of thing, and they'll say, 'It's about time!'" says Robinson.
"It's so validating. It gives all of us an opportunity to say, 'We're here and we've got somethin' to say. And you might want to listen. Because you're going to learn something. '"