C. Jeanean Gibbs sashays up to center stage as Tantie Blossom, an older woman in her new fuchsia silk robe with a shopping bag full of goodies to take on a trip to Trinidad. Her niece, Precious (Cecilia King), greets her and the bag with a squeal, almost jumping to find out what Tantie has bought for her: A one-piece bathing suit?! Precious is from the bikini generation, but she says she’ll wear it just to please her aunt—cooing sweet and syrupy like a spoiled brat. Then Precious drops the bomb: She wants to go to an all-star rap concert with her teenage friends and can’t make the flight to Trinidad.
Tantie Blossom, now in a smock and slippers, is vexed and takes back the gift. Her friend Violet (Makala Walls) comes through dragging a big package that someone else gave her to take down for the trip. When she hears that Precious has changed her mind about going, she coaxes Blossom to bring Precious back to her roots with the story of her great grandfather Papa Oscar, an enslaved African on a Trinidadian plantation who was “a slave and a rapper.” He used rap—the rhyme and rhythm of calypso—to direct an escape into the hills.
This is Runaway Slave, a play by Gibbs that survived an incident of carbon monoxide at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, several missed rehearsals, and cast changes. It is the Caribbean Creative Circle’s first production since the group first got together informally, in Northwest D.C. in June 1998. Gibbs recalls that she was working with a two-month rehearsal schedule that turned into a two-week practice stint for some of the actors. Things were so discouraging that, at one point, Gibbs thought maybe changing the play’s title would help. But tonight the audience cannot tell.
The idea for starting a group came after phone conversations with friends Catherine Williams and June Idrissa, who suggested to Gibbs that they combine talents and videotape the work that Caribbean artists and actors were doing. Five people met at the Watha T. Daniels Library in Northwest, and, in less than an hour, they decided to call themselves the Caribbean Creative Circle. Gibbs became the unofficial chair.
“We have a lot of Caribbean associations, but they don’t focus on art,” she says.
Since the ’80s, Gibbs has published two books of poetry, edited an anthology, and written at least four plays, one of which was performed in part by the Black Women Playwrights’ Group at the Studio Theatre last year. She could produce another with the Caribbean Creative Circle, but right now, Gibbs says, the group’s main goal is getting nonprofit status.
“We have to work on the business part first. Right now, we have no money to pay performers, to teach, or demonstrate workshops, and we can’t keep doing that.” Being a nonprofit, she says, will help the group get the financial help it needs to have bigger and better programs—Gibbs says one possibility is a play based on the fiasco of producing Runaway Slave.—Ayesha Morris