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Review: Chigger Foot Boys

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When I heard the title of Pat Cumper's play, Chigger Foot Boys - based on actual events of Jamaicans fighting for the British Empire in WWI - I stifled a nervous giggle. I hadn't heard the expression, 'chigger foot', in years but, more importantly, I felt a tinge of guilt.

I first heard the phrase as a girl, after overhearing my Jamaican mother with a friend. The two women seemed full of disdain for a fellow migrant. I had no idea what he'd said or done to draw their ire. But they dismissed any consideration of the transgressor, agreeing that they shouldn't "pay him any mind", or stoop to his level for that matter, as he was merely a 'chigger foot'.

I gleaned that a 'chigger foot' referred to a poor, bare-footed country boy who was, sadly, more often than not, destined for a life of toil, cutting sugar cane; a meagre existence as a 'higgler'; or exploited as an itinerant worker and source of cheap labour. Later, I learnt the literal meaning of 'chigger': a parasitic bug that bored tiny holes into flesh, secreting larvae, which caused sores. The salient point being that a 'chigger foot' was commonly associated with poverty i.e., the mite was able to burrow under the skin of someone's toes because they couldn't afford a pair of shoes, or any footwear at all.

With that thought, I sat down to watch Chigger Foot Boys, convinced that the term was a disparagement. One protagonist, Medora - feisty and fashioned in the tradition of strong, no-nonsense, black Jamaican women - was a match for any man. In this case: Mortie, a simpleton, referred to facetiously as "chigger foot bwoy" by a sweet-talking, smart alec professional soldier, Linton; and two decorous, middle-class brothers, Roy and Norman.

Most of the action takes place in Medora's rum bar near Kingston's harbour. Boisterous games of dominoes and lips loosened by alcohol encourages sparring between the characters, whose paths ordinarily wouldn't have crossed. To that extent, Pat Cumber's play portrayed a microcosm of Jamaican society: namely, the hierarchy of 'colour' and 'class' - a by-product of colonialism, which resulted in a caste system, or pigmentocracy.

My mother, barely 'brown', and with her father's connections, could have secured a job in the civil service. Instead, England's green and pleasant land beckoned. Ironically, she found herself amongst Jamaicans - like the transgressor - with whom she wouldn't typically have "kept company".

It seemed at one point as if most Jamaicans desired to go to the 'Mother Country'; moreover, they believed themselves to be British. And, as Linton informed: "If England was at war, so were we!" Indeed, Jamaica's loyalty to the Empire, which permeated every aspect of life, partly drove tens of thousands to enlist.

However, the cold reality of everyday, casual racism and housing discrimination, in particular, proved a great leveller for my mother and her contemporaries. But in Norman's experience it was ignominious, for different reasons. The light-complexioned, Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar had to suffer the indignity of only being allowed a commission with a special dispensation: becoming an officer rested upon him being listed as an "honorary white man."

Mortie, illiterate and an innocent was also a persistent soul; he turned up repeatedly at the recruitment office in Kingston, only to be rejected, usually on health grounds. Nevertheless, he believed his rifle skills at hunting wild boars in the 'bush' equipped him to be a sharp-shooter in the King's army. Eventually, he succeeded - when Britain was in desperate need of more men; or, as Linton put it, to reinforce the ranks of "cannon fodder".

Irina Brown's directional technique in portraying the multilayered aspects of each character was to employ flashbacks: Medora's vulnerability beneath the stern exterior; Linton's scheming; Mortie's dire prospects; Roy's half-hearted attempt at being responsible; and Norman, with his future looking the brightest, once he'd completed his law degree at Oxford. The flashbacks were seamless and didn't interfere with the play's pace or coherence. And smuggled in between the seriousness were some laugh-out-loud moments, as Pat Cumper's keen ear for dialogue and Jamaican patois resonated with some in the audience.

As the war raged Medora was best placed to observe its devastation at a distance; from the vantage point of her rum bar she was able to witness the wounded and dead returning in ever increasing numbers. When the futility of war finally dawns on her she becomes an adherent of a black nationalist leader on the rise - Marcus Garvey - who'd begun to preach against the "white man's war".

Like countless others, the aftermath of war was bitter for Norman: his beloved younger brother, Roy, didn't survive. And one of the most poignant scenes was an imagined conversation between Norman and his now dead brother. But the final scene in which Mortie and Roy's bodies were laid out head to toe brought the carnage to a close and revealed Pat Cumper's metaphor in using 'chigger foot'. Death had brought Mortie, with his combat boots on, and Roy in his bare feet, parity.

Earlier in the play Norman joked that Roy would never roam in the fields of the family's plantation unless he had his boots on - as he was afraid of the chiggers. And all along, more than anything, Mortie wanted to be respected. Tragically, his knee-jerk defiance at being discriminated against in Taranto, Italy, - where mutiny of soldiers from the British West Indies Regiment, rebelling at having to dig latrines and denied fair pay, was to ensue - led to Mortie being 'shot at dawn'.

In the dexterous hands of acclaimed playwright Patricia Cumper MBE, Chigger Foot Boys accomplished what a good theatrical production should by being bold, entertaining and enlightening. Indeed, Cumper's year and a half's research in both Britain and Jamaica shows; the play is jam-packed with little-known information on Jamaica's involvement in World War I. And, without a doubt, she ably convinced why, ultimately, 'chigger foot' wasn't a disparagement. Indeed, narratives like Mortie's represented - poor, marginalised and voiceless - were stories which needed to be told. To all the 'chigger foot boys' - nuff respec'.