Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1958) overview
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is a play by Trinidadian actor, playwright and director Errol John. It centres on a group of characters living close to the poverty line in a shared tenement yard in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Set in 1947, the play follows their aspirations to escape the yard, capturing the migratory impulse of those who came to England from the Caribbean and became known as the ‘Windrush generation’.
In Moon on a Rainbow Shawl Ephraim longs to leave the island and travel to England. He turns down a promotion at his job as a bus conductor and quits. Meanwhile, Rosa, his love interest, is working at Old Mack’s café and rejecting the elder suitor’s advances. The café is broken into and we learn it was Charlie, a financially unstable father who lives in the yard, desperate to provide for his wife Sophia and his daughter Esther. Charlie is arrested, and Rosa realises she is pregnant with Ephraim’s child. Ephraim abandons Rosa, determined to go to England, leaving her and the other women – Sophia and Esther – to navigate uncertain futures.
Ambition is a central driving force in the play. Everyone aspires for a better life, but certain factors, such as gender in particular, mean that not all necessarily succeed. Financial and familial struggles threaten Esther’s ability to take up the scholarship, leaving her with the only options available in the yard – domestic or sex work. Abandoned by Ephraim, Rosa’s future as a single mother appears bleak as she resigns herself to Old Mack’s advances. The title of the play suggests an oxymoron – the moon representing dreams and the rainbow shawl a metaphor for life in Trinidad – that hints at the conflict between the reality of the characters’ situation and the struggle to attain their dreams. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl invites audiences to understand why people left the Caribbean to come to England, and to also think more widely about migration and what motivates those to leave what is familiar.
The yard play genre
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl has a traditional three-act, two scene structure. It is described as a yard play – a distinctive form of Caribbean social realism that first appeared in the post-war era and refers to a naturalistic drama with the single set of a barrack-yard. Characters such as Ephraim, the ambitious young man and Rosa, an innocent on the cusp of adulthood, are typical of the genre. The contained one-set style, and Ephraim’s anger, bear similarity to the kitchen-sink, ‘angry young man’ dramas which also appeared in post-war Britain by playwrights such as John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe.
Key productions of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl was first produced in December 1958 at the Royal Court Theatre, the same year as the Race Riots in Notting Hill. John wrote the play after becoming disillusioned by the lack of good roles for Black actors in Britain. The 1958 production was one of the first times that a distinctive Caribbean dialect was heard on the British stage, and as a result the play is highly regarded as an exemplar of Caribbean theatre that challenged the idea that Standard English was the expected norm.
Since its original production, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl has enjoyed many revivals internationally, first in New York in 1962, in Trinidad in 1988, and then in Australia, Kenya, Iceland, Eastern Europe and South America. John’s play was first revived in Britain in 1986 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, then in 1988 at the Almeida Theatre, in 2003 at the Nottingham Playhouse Stage by Eclipse, and in 2012 at the National Theatre by Talawa Theatre Company who later took it on tour in 2014.
Further analysis of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl can be found in Lynette Goddard’s Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (Routledge, 2017) and the National Theatre’s Background Pack.