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VocalEye Virtual Presentations - Small Island

The book cover of Small Island by Andrea Levy

The description of a white schoolteacher in a demure dress belted at the waist takes me back to my Grade 2 classroom and Ms. Jan who, to my child's eyes, always managed to stay pretty and powder-fresh despite the tropical heat.

To my child's logic, that was because she was white.

White people were always immaculately groomed and dressed.

And the way they spoke English was so proper.

Listening to the recorded performance via Zoom, I love how dainty and precise young Hortense's sentences are. As would have been drilled into her by her British teachers, I knew.
The description, too, of palm trees bending under torrential rain, harkens me back to my childhood in Trinidad and Tobago. I chuckle as young Hortense calmly regards the lightning outside the school, while her teacher cowers.

White people are so jumpy, so…soft.

Now there's another gem of logic from my childhood.

At present, it is June 24, 2020 and another VocalEye Descriptive Arts Watch Party Wednesday. Tonight's presentation is Small Island, an adaptation by London's National Theatre of a novel by Andrea Levy.

I have been looking forward to this.

Rarely do I have the pleasure of being able to relate to the culture and the values of a theatre performance…including the racist undertones.

Small Island follows the lives of four characters, three who hail from Jamaica. The era is post-World War II but to my now 41-year old ears, the prejudice is the same my parents experienced when we immigrated to Canada in 1992.

The description of Gilbert's white colleagues mocking his speech and his actions remind me of the stories my Dad tells of his first weeks working in Canada.

The refrain, "Speak English!", directed to the black characters in Small Island is, too, a memory from my first years in Canadian school.

Like the characters in Small Island, I was educated by British teachers.

Like so-called Canadians, I, too, speak the Queen's English.

But, same as it was in the 1940's, it seems self-proclaimed Canadians close their minds off at the slightest variation in what they define as the Queen's English.

Not fair then, not fair now.

Neither is the assumption that I, and others who come from what people in the first-world label as the third-world, am from a country of mud huts and no technology.

I laugh when, in the performance, Queenie asks Hortense if there are shops where she comes from.

I don't think I laughed when I was asked a similar question a couple decades ago.

But I'm going off track.

The only other National Theatre production I've seen is Coriolanus and, now as I was then, I am enthralled with the technical attention to detail. I love the use of projections to transition from Jamaica to England, the revolving sets that add rather than detract from the flow of the action. I love the authenticity of the costumes – West Indians – then and now – would dress to the nines to meet visitors and loved ones from afar.

There is so much to take in. Live description allows me to catalogue the visual details while wrapping myself in the tragic yet hopelessly romantic story.

My eyes are damp by the end of the three-hour saga.

There is one thing I want to highlight in this review, beyond the value of described theatre to those who are blind and low vision. The production cast a revealing light on systemic racism, as in the misconceptions and prejudices upheld against people of colour by Caucasians.

Racism is a two-way street.

As hinted at the start of this review, I carry my own ingrained and unjustified attitudes about people with fairer skin than I.

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