Walking into the lobby of Center Stage for opening night of “Marley” was very much like entering one of those walled-off resorts in Jamaica, where local culture is sanitized and presented as some Island Disneyland where everyone is smiling and happy and drinking fruity drinks. The floor was covered in sand, there was a makeshift island hut in the corner with rum punch and Red Stripe on offer at the bar, and the play’s cast, wearing colorful shirts and relentless smiles, played the role of resort staff, singing and dancing and encouraging the mostly white, older theatergoers to get down.
In short, it was everything Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah said he wanted to counteract with “Marley.”
“These are the images that come along with Bob,” Kwei-Armah said in City Paper’s cover story on the play two weeks ago. “Bob Marley smoking weed, Bob Marley’s dreadlocks, that he had many children, that he was a Rastafari.”
“I’m not trying to take [people’s experiences with Marley] away,” he added, “I’m just not sure that the overwhelming majority of people know that much [about Bob Marley]. I think in America in particular, people probably have three or four Bob Marley songs that they know.”
This gaudy lobby display would do little to challenge even the most ignorant theatergoer’s perceptions of Bob Marley or the country he came from. Only when you walk into the antechamber, just before you enter the theater, is there a more realistic sense of the world Marley came from, Kingston’s Trenchtown township. There are signs of neglect, poverty, and decay, with bottles, pipes, and an abandoned toilet in the corners, and political posters and graffiti are everywhere, touting the country’s two political parties—the socialist People’s National Party (PNP) and Prime Minister Michael Manley and the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and Manley’s rival Edward Seaga.
Luckily, it seems the main lobby display is more of an unfortunate marketing strategy than anything essential to the play, which is deeply absorbing. Kwei-Armah talked to City Paper about wanting to demystify Bob Marley and show “the kind of man he was,” and in a less-talented playwright/director’s hands, such an effort might have consisted of explicating the wisdom of his songs, talking about the sufferers, revolution, and struggle in a way that would only remythologize Marley, if in a more meaningful way. Instead, Kwei-Armah writes Marley (played by Mitchell Brunings) as a conflicted, naive, religious man, one who is struggling to come to terms with the power his music has given him, both on a political level and a personal one. Kwei-Armah’s Marley is no angel, depicted frequently cheating on his wife, Rita Marley (Saycon Sengbloh), sometimes treating his closest advisers like shit, as when he shoves manager Don Taylor (Don Guillory)—who was injured in an attempt on Marley’s life and walks with a cane—to the ground, and not intervening to stop his associates from killing three of his attackers.
First and foremost, he is depicted as a powerful musician. Brunings, who was recruited for the part after he was spotted on YouTube performing a dead-on cover of ‘Redemption Song’ on “The Voice of Holland,” is, musically, a very close replica of the original. Physically, he’s shorter and more muscular. For most of the play, he wears a confused, uncomfortable scowl on his face. He pulls off Jamaican patois pretty well to these Babylon-bred ears, but during spoken parts, he often seems to be going through the motions.
The dialogue Kwei-Armah has written for Marley reflects a person confused about his mission and agenda. He clearly wants to support “the people,” and repeatedly puts his life in Jah’s hands—which makes some of his legendary actions, like going onstage before 100,000 people days after an assassination attempt, look less like pure bravery and more like religious fundamentalism. Beyond that, his most inspiring words almost always come in his songs. Whenever he seems on the verge of eloquence, he whips out a notebook and jots down the lyrics to songs such as ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘Exodus,’ which genuinely do reflect the trauma of the Jamaican people.
The play focuses on the period between 1976 and 1978, when rival parties and street gangs supporting them ravaged the streets of Kingston. At the outset, Marley plans a free Smile Jamaica Concert to calm things, but he becomes an unwitting pawn when Manley (Howard W. Overshown) calls for elections two days after the date of the concert. An assassination attempt two days before the show wounds Marley and others, including Rita and his manager, and despite pleas from his wife, Marley plays the show anyway, then flies to London, where he lives in exile and records some of his most famous music. He returns to Jamaica in 1978, a bigger star than ever, to play another free concert, The One Love One Peace Concert, to celebrate a truce and forces Manley and Seaga (Bill Hurlbut) to shake hands.
Kwei-Armah deserves credit for representing Rastafarianism as central to Marley’s life along the way. Mainstream admirers often put that element aside as some kooky witchcraft that wasn’t really an important part of Marley’s message. But Kwei-Armah shows Marley seeking wisdom—and getting it—in a London Rastafarian sanctuary and on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia, locating Marley’s experience as a religious journey of discovery. And, in classic dramatic fashion, Marley’s faith turns out to be a blessing—giving him the courage to be the inspiring leader his country needed him to be—and a curse, leading him to ignore doctors who want to amputate his toe to prevent the cancer that eventually killed him from spreading.
Unfortunately, after the dramatic climax of the play, there was an encore that reprises the phony cheer first displayed in the lobby. Cast members run up the aisles with plastered smiles pulling audience members out of the seats for a mandated sing-along. “Marley” generated its own energy and uplift. It didn’t need these tourist encounters to enforce them.