Analysis of a Close Reading of ‘A Diary of Souls’

On Monday, December 1st, the students of CARI 6011: Caribbean Text and Performance performed a close reading of an excerpt of the play “Diary of Souls”. “Diary of Souls” was written by the Bahamian playwright Ian Gregory Strachan. This play concerns the treatment of Haitians by Bahamians. It is the story of a sea guard who gets embroiled in the anti-Haitian culture of Bahamas when his team is faced with the task of disposing of several Haitian bodies on an uninhabited island. Following this he is haunted or “visited” by the ghosts of a few of the Haitian spirits which could not make the passage to their final spiritual resting place and therefore need his help. Most of the principal characters are Haitian ghosts and the element of the supernatural is also seen in the vodoun accomplished by the character Sylvie. This play is an excellent one to study in class or to perform in a Caribbean setting as it very casually assumes the valorisation of alternate epistemologies such as vodoun. This religion is given credence very naturally in the play. The only person who doubts the existence of the supernatural is an agnostic therapist whose materialist methods of helping Ishmael are ultimately inneffectual. The following is a review of an excerpt the students put on from “Diary of Souls”.

The excerpt the participants performed was Scene 2 to Scene 7.

The readers were assigned the following roles:
Ti Twan – Kherrie
Pol        – Malica
Silvi      – Allysen
Ishmael-Malica
Doctor – Camille

(The Direction and Stage directions were read by Janelle)

A close reading requires that the actors get to know their characters very well and seek to give as close a portrayal of their voice as their voice is the only thing they can focus on as one cannot use their body. This is what I’ve learnt of the characters based on the voicing by the students. (N.B. Malica was faced with the difficult task of voicing two characters:  Pol and Ishmael)

The casting of Allysen as Silvi was the perfect decision as she naturally has a melancholic tone and she had analyzed her character enough to exploit this. She recognized that Silvi showed a quiet maturity beyond her years due to her spiritual leaning and understanding of vodoun. This alternate epistemology or different way of understanding natural phenomena meant that Silvi has naturally acquired a wisdom beyond her years. Allysen rightly spoke slowly, deliberately and softly in order to convey this. Silvi has the fewest lines out of the tree dead characters, yet what she does say has a weight which informs the listener that it has greater meaning than the few words would suggest. She is one of the most levelheaded characters of the play with much fewer lines than her male countarparts,  which makes it good for a feminist interpretation. Indeed, the ghosts could not have made it fully into the land of the dead had Sylvi not known how to communicate with Ishmael through vodoun.

Her wisdom is paralleled with the calm patience the Doctor displays with Ishmael. The doctor was played by Camille who sought to portray the level-headed psychiatrist whose task is to assist Ishmael who appears to be suffering from Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder. The contrast between patient and doctor was highly important as they are operating out of two very different belief systems. Ishmael has believed in ghosts from his youth while the Doctor has a logical, almost materialist, view of interpreting the world. She is more than skeptical of Ishmael’s “visits” from the dead and promptly prescribes anti-psychotic medication. She thinks nothing more of the dead apart from the fact that death is eminent for everyone. However, apart from using her practical world-view which is ultimately ineffectual in a play which privileges notions of an alternate spirituality, the Doctor more importantly serves as the voice of the reader. It is also her duty to record Ishmael’s version of events, for while she finds it difficult to believe everything he says, she is dissonant enough to question the official record given by the powers that be. She  She is part investigator, part healer but ultimately the only person that can heal Ishmael is himself with the help of Silvi.

As mentioned before, Pol was played by Malica who also played the role of Ishmael. This required her to alter her voice significantly to distinguish between characters. Pol exhibits an almost defeatist attitude which Malica exaggerated by a low tone and slow and deliberate enunciation. On the other hand as Ishmael she spoke with a high, anxious tone which at times careened up and down in pitch as he tried to explain these supernatural sightings to the skeptical psychiatrist. The anxiety she showed as Pol emphasised the Post Tramatic Stress Disorder he is suffereing from following the disposal of the bodies. He is wracked with guilt, and on top of that is now haunted by the ghosts of those who did not fully make the passage to Guinea, where the dead spirits lie. The way frantic Ishmael and the doubtful Doctor bounced off of each other in this excerpt demonstrated the fact that they are operating out of two very different belief systems.

Just from this excerpt the success of this play by Ian Strachan can be seen in its valorisation of the Caribbean belief system vodoun. Vodoun as a syncretic form of religion which is the mixing of African religions and European Catholicism. Vodoun in itself shows the Caribbean to be the point of intersection between several cultures and is a valid way of seeing the world in Haiti. The benefit of this is seen in its positive use in this play.

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