Jamaican play about mental health, displacement premieres in New York

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A report by Alexandra Simon for Caribbean Life.

A popular Jamaican play exploring friendship and displacement has made its New York premiere at the New Perspective Theater, and will be playing until Oct. 28. “The Key Game,” by Pat Cumper, follows four men — three patients and their caretaker — in a dissolving psychiatric hospital in Jamaica, set to be destroyed for a high-rise hotel. The stage play tackles an important theme on mental health during adversity, and dealing with things beyond their control, said the producer.

“They are locked in a psychiatric ward and each of these four guys have unique stories beneath their eccentricity or quirks, and after so many years of being together day and night — they are now facing and impending an unknown future,” said Merlina Rich of Banana Boat Productions.

Their caretaker and nurse is also affected by the closure, and the story reveals something about him that his patients were not aware of.

“Their nurse is very important to them, and there are feelings and actions he does, that he was able to expose before,” added Rich.

She says despite the play being written in 2004 and based in Jamaica, the focal point of the story is quite universal not only to the Caribbean, where investors often push out natives to make way for fancy resorts, but also in major cities such as London and New York — where gentrification operates similarly.

“The show is about mental health a little, and the government being the root of the displacement, so even though it’s set in Jamaica — it could be anywhere,” said Rich.

One of Rich’s favorite themes of the play is being able to see how people can form friendships while dealing with a shared struggle.

“I really like the ending, the bonding and friendships — and how people can come through for each other in different ways,” she said.

She said one of the vital morals in the show was examining how people adapt to life altering changes, and how this can eventually lead them to unity and navigating despite it all.

“It’s saying to look within yourself to see that even what you think is crazy, might not actually be crazy, and even in times of desperation or if you’ve even developed a dependency, finding a community is very therapeutic,” said Rich.

Rich says while the show is written, directed, and produced by people of Jamaican descent, including herself — the actors speak in standard English with a slight accent. She explains she wanted it that way to help showcase the wider appeal of the story, and reshape what people think of as Caribbean narratives.

“People are accustomed to hearing about the Labor Day Parade or jerk chicken and don’t realize in order to see the real culture that goes on in Caribbean, it’s best to create plays that are both thoughtful and entertaini­ng,” she said. “‘The Key Game’ intersects with Caribbean life and human experiences that anyone can identify with.”

And the self-exploration the characters undergo examines how displacement can affect society’s most vulnerable.

“The men in this hospital have been there for so long, and they’re seeing the need in each other and responding to their needs, whether positive or negative,” added Rich.

“The Key Game” at New Perspective Theater [456 W. 37th St. at Tenth Avenue in Manhattan, 212-586-8767, www.bananaboatproductions.org]. Oct. 17-28. Wed–Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 3 pm. $20 ($15 students and seniors).

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