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Una Marson

Theatre Peckham 2023

Review by Robert  Donald 


‘African spirits and European saints had been sharing the province for centuries,’ writes Delia Jarrett-Macauley in The Life of Una Marson, 1905-65. Central to Una Marson’s seminal play, Pocomania, is the practice of the same name: Pocomania or Pukkumina (a Spanish derivative of ‘a little madness’). The descendants of enslaved Afro-Jamaicans kept alive their tradition of African religions and amalgamated them with Christian worship, not dissimilar to Candomblé, that combines elements of African cultures – Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon – with Catholicism and indigenous South American beliefs. The play focuses on Stella Manners, a young middle-class woman, who loses the love of her life in WW1. Her despair and depression is leavened by the intriguing drumming from her neighbour’s yard. It’s the sound of Pocomania, which galvanises feelings of loss and displacement and awakens a spirituality in Stella. 

As soon as the audience steps into Theatre Peckham, they’re transported to rural 1930s Jamaica; the sights and sounds evoke a vibrant Pocomania yard with its billowing smoke and pulsating drumbeats competing with ‘old-time’ Christian choruses adding to the atmosphere. 

In the opening sequence, Stella rises from her slumber almost trance-like, hypnotised by the sound of distant drums. Pocomania is frowned upon by Jamaica’s middle classes who are embarrassed by African-rooted religions. Ordinarily, her social class wouldn’t associate with her poor, black compatriots or become embroiled in ‘the cult’. But she’s unable to resist the lure of the drums and is mesmerised by the charisma of Sister Kate, a revivalist leader, who holds meetings in her Yard.

Sister Kate is a rumbustious character, played by the scene-stealing Connie Bell; forthright and brusque; her patois contrasts with Stella’s primness. Their unlikely relationship partially holds the key to Stella’s recovery from depression.

In one pivotal scene, Sister Kate is at loggerheads with two men battling for Stella’s soul: her father, Deacon Manners, and Parson Craig from the local Baptist church. They confront her about poaching their parishioners. But Sister Kate outsmarts them and calls out Deacon Manners for his hypocrisy: 

‘Is what you coming to say, Deacon Manners? You know I have a mind tell Parson about you … You used to send you servant and all you pickney, you two daughters and you two godsons to de meeting. Dem stan in a bush one side but de spirit tol’ me dem was dere.’

 Pocomania debuted in 1938 at the Ward Theatre, Kingston, Jamaica. Among those present were the Governor (Sir Edward Denham) and other elite, brown theatregoers who would have  squirmed in embarrassment at a spectacle they regarded as regressive. But eighty-five years on, the staging at Theatre Peckham is a community affair: Its diverse audience – black and white, young and not-so- young, is made all the more special with many Windrush generation members in attendance, singing along and dancing in the aisles.

Besides the comedic aspects, the play addresses hard-hitting issues such as the stigma of mental health problems We are taken on a journey with Stella. At first, she’s only soothed by the Pocomania drums but after Sister Kate’s untimely death her focus shifts: ‘There’s no spirit here now she has gone. Only noise,’ Stella confides to David, an admirer who has been waiting patiently for Stella to come to her senses. ‘No more Pocomania then?’ asks a hopeful David. ‘No more Pocomania,’ Stella replies. The outcome is a happy one. David promises  to replace Pocomania with something better. ‘A little madness?’ asks Stella. ‘Yes,’ says David ‘I suppose love can be called that as well. We all need a little madness in our lives.’

Photo courtesy of Theatre Peckham