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Migration stories in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Set in Trinidad, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl centres on a group of characters contemplating migration or other ways of leaving their shared tenement yard. Lynette Goddard examines the play’s setting, offstage spaces and the contrasting ambitions and perspectives of men and women.

Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl became one of the first plays by a Black Caribbean writer to be produced in Britain when it was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in December 1958. Since its original production, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl has had many revivals worldwide, the first being in New York in 1962. Four revivals have been staged in Britain at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (1986; directed by Errol John), the Almeida Theatre (1988; directed by Maya Angelou), by the Eclipse Theatre Company (2004; directed by Paulette Randall) and by the National Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company (2012 and 2014; directed by Michael Buffong). Moon on a Rainbow Shawls popularity can partly be attributed to its engagement with the theme of migration, and its examination of some of the reasons that propelled Black Caribbean emigrants to move to England during the post-war period. Migration stories are frequently found in Black British theatre with many of the first, second and even third generation playwrights exploring the motivations, tensions and lasting effects of migration. John’s play, however, is particularly significant as one of the earliest dramatic contemplations of Black Caribbean migration.

Photograph from a 2012 production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Photogragh of a production of MOON ON A RAINBOW SHAWL

Ephraim and Rosa with the rainbow shawl.

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The yard setting

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is set in 1947, the same year that the SS Ormonde carried 100 passengers from the Caribbean to Liverpool and one year before the arrival of Empire Windrush in Tilbury on 22 June 1948. It portrays the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’ by centring on a group of characters who are living near the poverty line in a shared tenement yard in Port of Spain, Trinidad. John’s play focusses on characters who are contemplating migration or other ways of leaving the yard and shows the potentially devastating effects of tearing apart the yard community.

Yard plays were a form of Caribbean realism that first appeared in the post-war period and which portrayed the lives of poor working-class communities living in close contact with each other. Compared to the interior settings of the domestic ‘kitchen sink’ plays that were popular in Britain during the 1950s, the main action of yard plays occurs in a shared exterior space of yards or verandas, which are connected to offstage indoor spaces that are not completely visible to audiences. The outdoor setting enables a range of characters from the community to meet in the shared public space where audiences can observe their relationships with each other. The yard setting of dry grey earth and ramshackle, faded and shabby buildings presents the poverty, simplicity and challenges of the characters’ daily lives. Outside taps, buckets, barrels and other objects give an indication of the manual labour required to fulfil day-to-day activities, such as washing, cooking and cleaning. The yard setting emphasises just how much is at stake in economic migration by showing the struggles of life in the post-war Caribbean. These struggles start to explain why the characters desire to move away from the yard to improve their lives.

Censored script of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John

Errol John Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

'When the play begins - the backyard appears stark and grey under the flooding light of a moon that is almost full'

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Usage terms © Extracts from Playscript of Moon on a Rainbow shawl by Errol John reprinted by permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop (www.petersfraserdunlop.com) on behalf of the Estate of Errol John. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Lord Chamberlain's Office: © Crown Copyright. This material has been published under an Open Government Licence.

Why else did so many people chose to leave those lives behind and move to England? At the time John was writing, England was perceived to be the ‘Mother Country’. Caribbean islands were still under British rule before gaining independence in the 1960s. Caribbean people celebrated British holidays, traditions and customs and followed the British education curriculum. Patriotic songs such as the British national anthem, ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ and ‘There’ll Always be an England’ were sung in school assemblies with the aim of instilling a sense of English national pride in the lives of British subjects living in the Caribbean. Such knowledge of English culture and traditions undoubtedly underpinned the desire to move and migration to Britain was figured in terms of ‘coming home’. Indeed, the Evening Standard greeted the arrival of the Windrush and its passengers with the headline ‘Welcome Home’ (23 June 1948).

The yard’s characters

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl contains a range of typical yard play characters. There is Ephraim, the young bachelor who is burning with ambition and dreaming of emigrating to England; Sophia, the earth mother who struggles to do her best to provide for her family; Charlie, the older man who has failed in his ambitions of becoming a world class cricketer and has turned to alcohol; Rosa, the naïve and innocent teenager on the threshold of adulthood; Mavis, the prostitute who brings US Navy sailors back to the yard; Prince, the hustler who makes his living by trading goods with the sailors at the port; Old Mack, the exploitative landlord who owns the yard properties and charges high rents; and Sophia’s daughter Esther and the other young children who represent the hopes and possibilities of the next generation.[1]

The characters see the yard as a kind of trap that stifles their ambitions and prevents them from bettering their lives. Each character has their own dream of how to escape the poverty of the yard and improve their lives through education, marriage, or migrating to England for better work opportunities. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl emphasises the weight of the decision to migrate, as well as the constraints that are beyond individuals’ control. Opportunities for movement away are often determined by where the jobs are, and economic migrants to Britain tend to settle in the bigger cities, such as London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester.

Censored script of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John

Errol John Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

This page lists the 12 characters in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.

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Usage terms © Extracts from Playscript of Moon on a Rainbow shawl by Errol John reprinted by permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop (www.petersfraserdunlop.com) on behalf of the Estate of Errol John. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Lord Chamberlain's Office: © Crown Copyright. This material has been published under an Open Government Licence.

Representing spaces outside of the yard

Offstage spaces in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl hint at the promise of greater wealth and freedom being found away from the yard. Down by the shore, the soldiers and sailors are celebrating the return of the troops after the end of the war. Elsewhere, the takings are stolen from Old Mack’s café, and the local children are heard laughing and playing freely beyond the yard gates while Esther is trapped in the yard helping Sophia with household chores.

One of the most important implied offstage spaces is England, which the central male character Ephraim dreams of leaving for. Ephraim’s desire to migrate oozes from the first moments of the play, both through allusions and in his responses to and encouragement of other characters. In the opening scene, Ephraim arrives back home late at night and meets Esther and her baby brother in the yard waiting for Sophia to return. The baby is crying and unable to sleep until Ephraim suggests that Esther bring him outside for some air. As he holds him close and soothes him back to sleep, Ephraim whispers, ‘Dream yer dreams, little man. Dream yer dreams. He wanted a little air. That was all’ (Act 1, Scene 1). Hinting at the central themes within the play, these words –address the dreams and desires of all of the main characters, for a life and a future beyond the yard. In contrast to the humidity of the Trinidadian evening, Ephraim’s words can also be taken as referring to the cooler climes of England.

Men and women

Looking at the theme of migration in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl involves a focus on the contrasting perspectives of two of the main characters – Ephraim and Sophia. Together they encapsulate the tension between the men who left and the women who stayed behind. This is not to say that women did not emigrate also – in fact many did – but it was often the young men who had greater opportunities to leave.

Ephraim is determined to leave Trinidad and emigrate to Liverpool. He sees Trinidad as a place where his dreams and aspirations are stifled by being in a dead-end job as a trolley bus driver, with few opportunities for progression. Emigration represents the possibility of hope, change and opportunity. Early in the play Ephraim also encourages Esther to seek the fulfillment of her ambitions away from the island, to go away and come back big to gain the respect of the other islanders. Ephraim’s advice coincides with the Caribbean emigrant experience of many who had planned to move to England for five years before returning back home.

Censored script of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John

Errol John Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

'The war was comin' to an end - I thought ... In a few years time - if I save enough - I go away to England. Get meyself a job there. In the night time I study something - I wasn't sure what. But the thing, Rosa! - was to get there!'

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Usage terms © Extracts from Playscript of Moon on a Rainbow shawl by Errol John reprinted by permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop (www.petersfraserdunlop.com) on behalf of the Estate of Errol John. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Lord Chamberlain's Office: © Crown Copyright. This material has been published under an Open Government Licence.

However, John’s play suggests that it will be more difficult for the women to leave the yard. Esther has won a scholarship to cover the fees for her to continue her education at high school, but the possibilities of her taking up the place are at risk because her parents cannot afford the associated costs of uniforms and other required items. Rosa is left alone and pregnant with Ephraim’s baby when he departs for England at the end of the play. Sophia is cynical about England, reprimanding Esther for singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and for wearing the Union Jack flag on her head as though it was a bandana. In contrast to Ephraim, Sophia’s ambition is to stay and work to improve the lives of those who remain on the island. In the final scene she argues with Ephraim about his desire to leave Trinidad and she challenges his belief that emigration will offer him better opportunities. By the end of the play prostitute Mavis is the only female character who seems to have found a way to leave the yard by accepting Prince’s marriage proposal, and they head off into the moonlit night for a date as Frank Sinatra’s romantic ballad ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ plays on the radio. The other women seem destined to remain stuck in the yard and Rosa turns to Old Mack for comfort as the curtain falls.

Censored script of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John

Errol John Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

'Go! Go wherever [...] yer want to go. Yer think that other side of the worl' have something for you?! No! - boy. Not you!'

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Usage terms © Extracts from Playscript of Moon on a Rainbow shawl by Errol John reprinted by permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop (www.petersfraserdunlop.com) on behalf of the Estate of Errol John. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Lord Chamberlain's Office: © Crown Copyright. This material has been published under an Open Government Licence.

An open question

One important question that is raised by Moon on a Rainbow Shawl concerns whether or not Ephraim will really find the fulfilment that he seeks in Britain. By 1958, when John’s play was first produced, audiences would have been well aware that Black migrants were faced with the prospect of racial hostilities. The first generation of migrants found housing difficult to acquire and landlords placed the notorious ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs in their windows to specify those who were not welcomed there. 1958 was also the year of the Teddy boy race riots in Notting Hill, where young Black men were at high risk of violent racist attacks on the streets. Such hostilities have continued to feature in responses to newer waves of migrants arriving in Britain, and immigration has been a driving topic in recent British political debates. In this light, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl provides audiences with an opportunity to grapple with the particular concerns about Caribbean migration to Britain in the post-war era, as well as to think about how similar issues arise in present-day experiences and attitudes. Furthermore, the play taps into a particularly important moment of Caribbean history in Britain that helps audiences – then and now – to understand the motives that underpinned mass-scale migration from the Caribbean to Britain in the mid-20th century. At the same time, the play’s migration stories carry echoes of newer waves of migration, demonstrating its evolving relevance for our own times.

Footnotes

[1] See Judy Stone, Studies in West Indian Literature: Theatre (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1994).


This article also appears Discovering Literature: 20th Century.

Banner: A crop of the front cover of the censored script of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John, from the Lord Chamberlain's Office. 

  • Lynette Goddard
  • Dr Lynette Goddard is a Reader in Black Theatre and Performance at Royal Holloway, University of London, where they work on contemporary black British playwriting with a focus on the politics of race, gender, and sexuality. Their publications include Staging Black Feminisms: Identity, Politics, Performance, Contemporary Black British Playwrights: Margins to Mainstream, and Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. They are currently working on a project examining how race relations are portrayed on stage through such themes as race and the police, race and immigration, race and sport, race and religion, and race and far right politics.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.