By Carey Brianna Hart
Yankee Bajan, a play with music by Linda Parris-Bailey, recently at The Lehman Theater of Miami Dade College in early November, takes the audience on a poignant and timely journey, exploring the bonds of a family striving for safety and togetherness at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Set against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial tensions gripping America, the play presents a contrasting yet interconnected narrative of ancestral roots and personal transformation.
From the moment one approaches the theater, the tropical sounds of Barbadian music beckon the audience, setting the stage for an immersive experience. The explosive opening scene encapsulates the fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously embracing the ancestral call of Barbados with its Black majority and leadership. The story revolves around Hugh, a university professor, and his family—his wife Keryl, a visual artist; their son Xavian, a teenage civil activist, and their daughter Maya, a perceptive and intelligent high schooler. In a bold move, Hugh decides to uproot their lives and relocate to his ancestral home of Barbados.
The challenges faced by the family throughout their journey are both internal and external. Hugh must convince Xavian to redirect his energies toward family and away from the movement, highlighting the theme of self-discovery amidst turbulent times. The family’s two-week quarantine at a luxury resort hotel in Barbados becomes a moment of togetherness and bonding as they confront fears, anxieties and uncertainty. It is during this time that the strength of their familial bonds truly shines.
The dynamics within the family are beautifully depicted, especially in the relationships between the siblings. The playwright crafts these interactions to assuage the concerns and anxieties of their parents about the decision to uproot their lives. Hugh and Keryl’s love also is put to the test during this transition, resulting in unexpected outcomes that offer a refreshing perspective on commitment and growth.
Once the quarantine ends, the family’s life in Barbados truly begins. The play delves into the trials and triumphs they face while integrating into the island’s cultural, economic, social, educational and generational fabric. The exploration of traditional cultural values, the country’s colonial history, and the challenge of being perceived as “Yankee Bajans” add depth and nuance to the narrative, showcasing the complexities of identity and community.
One of the standout elements of Yankee Bajan is its music, composed by Dr. H. Stefan Walcott. The infusion of Barbadian music throughout the show enhances the storytelling, evoking emotions and contributing to the seamless flow of the scenes. From mesmerizing dance sequences to rousing songs that incite communal participation, the music becomes an indispensable part of the production, enriching the overall experience.
The set, designed by Russell Watson, uses mobile pieces reminiscent of packing boxes and luggage that transform and move from place to place. This maintains a focus on the fresh move and concepts of fitting into the new environment. The set also is heightened by the use of beautiful, moody lighting by Darren W. McCroom and projections by Izia Lindsay and Russell Watson that envelop the entire stage and immerse the audience in the fluid waves of the ocean or in the chaotic fields of fire. The projections also are used cleverly to spotlight the video chat conversations throughout the play.
Linda Parris-Bailey does a fine job of capturing the musicality of Barbadian slang in the language of the play with its lighthearted tone while delivering intense, serious and sarcastic dialogue. She also lets us see how words can hurt or heal with their tone and delivery and offers examples of how to converse without averting a conclusion to the crisis at hand.
Dahlak Braithwaite has directed his cast masterly to deliver this slice of life in a way that invites the audience in to express themselves as the oohs and ah-ha moments occur within the plot. The cast is a unified ensemble with standout performances by Simon Alleyne as the spirit of Bussa, and Michelle Hinkson-Cox performing dances that stir the soul to remember ancestors long gone. Jabari Browne’s energy as Kai is unmatched and magnetic. Charlene Morris as Giselle delivers strength and vulnerability as Xavian’s strong, upwardly-bound peer.
Ishiaka McNiel is hysterical and engaging as Cyril. Rashida Brereton captures the reverence of the matriarchal spirit of Grandmother Lou, commanding the space she enters with an aura of grace. Ayesha Gibson-Gill as Del becomes the consciousness of the play, delivering the exposition and keeping the audience aligned with what really is happening as she helps the family settle into Bajan culture and community. Drew Drake and Andrea Mosley as the patriarch (Hugh) and matriarch (Keryl) of the family on the move, deliver the connection of Black love with sensitivity and authenticity as they ponder the correctness of the decisions they have made for their family. Manny Dunn as Xavian adeptly shows the journey of a teenage boy growing into a strong, idealistic young man ready to face his life challenges, and Callie Holley is delightful as Maya being thrust into uncertain circumstances and finding her identity and personal footing.
The show, co-produced by Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, the Koubek Center and Parris-Bailey Arts, is an educational and entertaining theatrical experience. Audiences will be engaged delightfully in the story, the music and the visuals of the play. They even may be inspired to plan a trip to Barbados to learn and experience more. Overall, Yankee Bajan is a powerful and moving theatrical production that confronts timely social issues while exploring themes of family, identity, and the pursuit of a better life. Linda Parris-Bailey offers a thought-provoking and engaging narrative that captivates the audience from start to finish. With its evocative music, exceptional performances, and the fusion of contemporary struggles and ancestral heritage, Yankee Bajan is a must-see play that resonates deeply in our current socio-political landscape.