“Dere hope for him yet?
Doh know how…
What you tink,
About Starboy now?”
From Corporal’s speech at the end of Act 1, Jab Molassie
What originally drew me to Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat as the starting point for an adaptation is its universal story. Underlying it is the Biblical text, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” For my Caribbean version, I chose to set the work in the hills of Laventille, overlooking the Savannah in Port of Spain, where the National Academy for the Performing Arts has recently been planted like an alien spaceship. Rather than a world war, I created a turf war, in which ‘Starboy,’ a young musician on the fringes of a gang is the soldier. Narrating the story is a security guard at Starboy’s school. The Princess, a silent dance part, became a Carnival queen and the devil became Jab Molassie, which is patois for molasses devil, a particularly terrifying traditional character in Trinidad Carnival lore. Unable to predict the price he will pay for the exchange of his violin for Jab’s magic book, the overriding question is, can Starboy find his way through or will he be lost to Jab forever?
Many of the students in our outreach string programs come from Laventille and the surrounding communities of Gonzales, Belmont and Morvant, so I began my research with a walking tour of the area. Perched high above the blue Caribbean Sea and looking down upon the Savannah, this might be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Dotted with charming pink and green and fading yellow houses, people relax on their galleries and lime on the corner.
However, there is a darker side to Laventille; ravaged by poverty and unemployment in recent years, harrowing stories of young men’s lives cut short are regularly splashed across the newspapers. In the opening monologue, the narrator ends by saying, “Laventille; the name is genteel, but it’s home of the Dead End Kids.” Known in the 1940’s as the ‘Dead End Kids’, Desperados, the oldest steel band in Trinidad, is housed in a large youth facility at the top of Laventille Road. During the Carnival season, however, they move down to Cadiz Road on the Savannah, as visitors are advised not to venture into Laventille after dark.
It was therefore important in setting the work in Laventille to get beyond the perception of its use as a convenient backdrop in this Faustian tale. Our task was to capture with just the right combination of words, sounds and images what the world of Laventille means, but also to show that Laventille was actually everywhere, not just Trinidad. Indeed, that Jab Molassie was a universal human story and that Starboy was Everyman.
I had planned to perform the work with Stravinsky’s original score. Written for a small chamber ensemble, the piece was heavily influenced by the in-vogue African rhythms prevalent in Europe at the time, which was then in love with Primitivism and that new form of music, jazz! With a similar line up to an old time calypso band, I felt the work was relevant in Trinidad. However, I began thinking that my piece might be that much more powerful to a local audience if it had an original score written by a Trinidadian composer.
Through a series of connections I was put in touch with Dominique Le Gendre, who was at the time an Associate Artist at the Royal Opera House in London, from whence I had just moved. Dom grew up in a Trinidad that did not offer higher education in the arts at the time. The combination of her roots in Trinidad, my roots in New Orleans, our exposure to African rhythms, jazz and Carnival, as well as our classical training combined to make the perfect partnership for creating a relevant piece of music theatre.
Jab Molassie premiered in November 2014. The band was hot and the cast was phenomenal. It was a true collaboration between the internationally recognized musicians on faculty at the Academy and Trinidad’s brightest stars. Behind the scenes we had created paid internships for deserving students, some of whom came from the surrounding areas of Laventille, to give them an opportunity to work in a professional setting. In his glowing review, Simon Lee wrote, “I can think of no performance on a Trinidad stage in the last 20 years which exuded the electrifying creativity Jab Molassie brought to town.”
I will never forget the buzz in the air on opening night, but for me it was the school’s concerts that were most electrifying. In the audience were my own young star boys from the CANAOE String Program. At the end of the final matinee one of them approached me and asked,
“Miss, what you think about Starboy now? He gonna make it?”
“I don’t know, it’s up to him,” I replied.
“But Miss,” he said, “he’s your character, you must know what happens to him!”
“I sure hope he makes it,” I said, “I love Starboy!”