Theatre Buzz – Dragged on Stage

Playwright Christopher Rodriguez brings High Heel Parrotfish to the London stage

Christopher Rodriguez. Photograph courtesy Talawa/ Photograph by Richard H. Smith

Six drag queens are cavorting on the stage of London’s Theatre Royal, manipulating the macho boasts of calypso lyrics to better suit their own points of reference. Or, to be more accurate, five and a half drag queens are cavorting, as one “semi-retired” reveller is dressed in a business suit, but wearing lipstick. The setting is an underground Trinidad nightclub during Carnival, where the nearby presence of hostile police threatens serious disruption, should the club be discovered by the outside world. As the dramatic tension builds, laughter dwindles once the audience registers the very real plight of the protagonists.

Hailed by the British press as “Trinidad’s most promising playwright”, Christopher Rodriguez is known for complex, provocative theatre pieces and his fondness for mixing the intellectual and symbolic with the emotional. His latest play, High Heel Parrotfish, may be his most controversial yet. “Even though it’s a fun play and a laugh a minute, putting black drag queens on stage in the Caribbean will say a lot about black homophobia and what we need to do about it as a people,” Rodriguez told me shortly before the play’s opening. “I think we’re now dealing with the issue of looking at how discriminatory we can be — that black people can be fairly discriminatory and really get off the hook, because we’re the first to point fingers at anybody who will attempt to discriminate against us . . . I’m sure some people might come out of curiosity, but others probably will just avoid it altogether.”

Raised in a privileged suburb in Santa Cruz, north-east of Port of Spain — “a little enclave cut into the foothills of the Northern Range” — Rodriguez attended St Mary’s College, where he was first introduced to the dramatic arts. In the late 1980s, he spent five years in London pursuing a course in accounting, an experience he describes as “culturally a real eye-opener, just to get along”, but as friends from St Mary’s were also in London, studying at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Rodriguez gradually became involved in theatre. At the offices of Talawa, the leading black theatre company in Britain, the affable writer traces the events that led him to become a playwright.

“I was waiting for exam results in London, and a friend of mine, Helmer Hilwig, started working on doing The Sound of Music in Trinidad; then I qualified, went home, started working at Price Waterhouse, and got involved in the show. The stage script didn’t seem like it was adapted that well, so I started on it, just jumping in and saying, ‘Let me see if I can try to make these scenes fit for the Queen’s Hall stage,’ and somehow it worked. Then we did Miracle at Stollmeyer’s Castle with Brian McFadden, where they wanted us to put these Mozart songs together, taking traditional songs and turning them into a complete story. But at this point I was a functioning accountant, and that was really my big interest.”

International recognition came once Rodriguez began writing plays of his own, signalling an end to his accountancy career. “I decided I would like to write a play, a full dramatic piece, and I took the bold step of calling UK theatres and saying, ‘This is Christopher Rodriguez, I’m sure you know my stuff, I’m sending something in, can you read it,’ sounding official and important, and I think because I was so bold, a lot of people bought into it. The play Clear Water got shortlisted for an international playwriting festival, judged by the Royal Court and the British Council, so in 1997 the Royal Court invited me to spend four weeks on a writer’s residency, and that was really a step into the theatre world here. The Oval House theatre in south London had a copy of the script of Clear Water, and when I staged it in Trinidad in 1998, they came and made an offer for me to be writer-in-residence, and I thought, this is a good time to leave accounting.”

Clear Water attempted to highlight the overriding negative valuation attached to African cultural practices in Trinidad, exploring the fractured nature of a Caribbean psyche that has emerged in the post-colonial era. Similarly, his award-winning BBC radio play, A Parandero Is Missing, has a specifically Trinidadian setting, as the protagonists are a group of “cocoa panyols”, who, like Rodriguez himself, are Trinidadians of Venezuelan origin. But other plays, though set in Trinidad, have explored more universal themes; Independence Day is centered on the social taboo facing a married couple in which the woman is twenty years older than the man.

Rodriguez is keen to emphasise that, although High Heel Parrotfish is set in Trinidad, the play is actually about attitudes towards homosexuality in the Caribbean as a whole; he also notes it was originally staged in Trinidad in 1996 in a more light-hearted form, as Life Is a Drag. “The play is meant to reflect much more on the Caribbean than it does on Trinidad specifically,” he explains. “Trinidad is a little more tolerant in comparison to the other Caribbean islands, and perhaps the Carnival aspect helps, because it really is ‘anything goes’ at Carnival time; all the taboos fall, and it’s understood on the two days of Carnival that anybody can do what they want, and come Ash Wednesday, we all collectively forget anything we saw those two days. So it allows a little more scope and a little more tolerance, and Trinidad is increasingly tolerant.

“The first time we staged it, it was really for fun, and it was a very mixed audience that attended; people from all walks came, including a vanload of pensioners, and the response was amazing. The reason I thought it was timely to stage now was because it’s coming against this doctrine of Jamaican homophobia that was sanctioned by the entire Caribbean in a way, and this is really unacceptable. So this time, I thought I would really push the comedy and develop it into a full comic story, but in the meantime, also have the idea that comedy just runs that line of tragedy all the time. So the more I take the comedy up is the more I emphasise how dangerous it is, that if people find out what is happening, there is going to be a disaster that the country somehow sanctions. And at the same time, it’s a celebration that people still have the courage to go out and attempt shows like that, and then it becomes a much more political animal than it was before. But I don’t believe in doing politics in a lecture phrase, so it remains very entertaining.”

Ever busy, Rodriguez already has a couple of other plays in the offing, each bearing his particularly hard-hitting hallmarks: The Making of St Johnny, which explores the potentially deadly politics of insular, small-town Britain, will open soon at the Lichfield Garrick, while Losing the Race, which examines issues of migration, colour, and loss, is currently being considered by the National.

David Katz

High Heel Parrotfish runs at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, until May 7