Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: Worship Players Jesus Christ Superstar

Jerome de Silva’s Jesus Christ Superstar sold out twelve shows in a few days. With a cast like he managed to bring together added to the fame of Tim Rice’s lyrics and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, this was really not a surprise.

The show was the work of amateurs and carried with it some of the so-so quality of such productions. But considering the reputation and expectation there was to live up to, it did surprisingly well, even on a mid-run night.

As happens too often, it feels, there was a lot of obvious use of technology involved in the production.  And if it’s obvious, then there is something wrong. The opening scenes had carefully orchestrated lighting schemes that were quite stunning, except that they were not well timed with the sound-track. But as Jesus breathed his last and the skies broke open, the lights worked well to create an awe-inspiring effect that forced some of the audience back against their seats.

There was a very differently awesome moment in the simple sparkle in ‘Could We Start Again Please’. It was poignant and sincere, and for the first time in a long time I had goose bumps on my arms as Gehan Blok walked on as Judas, to accompany Kavitha Gunesekera’s Mary Magdalene for the last few notes.

Blok has become a familiar name and face on stage, but the fact that his lungs were matched with equally capable vocal cords was probably not well known until now. He sang Judas with strength and good tone, often overshadowing Chrisantha CC de Silva’s performance of Jesus. This was definitely not CC’s best night, and he did not live up to the acting skills required of the star of the show. His voice, nevertheless, came out mellower and better controlled than one usually hears from him in the music scene.

Mario De Soyza playing Pilate and Dominic Kellar playing Herod were probably the most mature performances of the night, Pilate especially being very subtly controlled. Herod was only as funny as he was expected to be, but fortunately or unfortunately, Pusswedilla will haunt Kellar wherever he goes. For Jerome de Silva and his Jesus Christ Superstar though, a Pusswedilla-Herod sure worked.

As far as musicals go, Colombo saw something wonderful through the run of the show. Jerome De Silva’s passion for meaningful and well-produced theatre drew many tears over the ten days, and we congratulate the cast and crew on creating an unforgettable experience. Colombo, one can be sure, unanimously looks forward to more!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The 'Roundabout' Church: Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church celebrates 200 years

Link up to published version 
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; 
Do not spare; 
Lengthen your cords, 
And strengthen your stakes…”

Rev. S. J. de S. Weerasinghe quoted from Isaiah 54:2 and 3 at the end of the 1988 historical record of the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church.

“The challenge of community outreach, the impulsion of our cultural heritage and the vision of an ecumenical perspective. As I see it, these are the directions in which our immediate future should be deeply involved, with firm resolve and purposeful action” were the final words he penned in to the document.

The Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church turns 200 years old this month. It stands at the busiest intersection in Colombo, one that has been transformed dramatically over the years. And at the turning of the century, it is a reflection of this metamorphosis, expanding and growing into a truly “local” church.

The ‘Elite’ Church

Rev. James Chater, Sri Lanka’s first Baptist missionary, arrived on the island with his wife, Anne, and four children, in 1812. His 1813 sermon “in a warehouse somewhere in the Pettah,” marked the beginning of the Baptist Church in Sri Lanka.

Original membership, according the church history, was “made up entirely of Europeans and Burghers”. Many of its early pastors were simply Baptist missionaries with plans to move inland once they had a working knowledge of the people and language of Sri Lanka. So the church rarely had the same pastor for longer than a few years at a time.

Despite this situation the congregation was strengthened in its convictions and grew in number and commitment, starting prayer meetings and bible studies and even subscribing to build “a proper place of worship”.

It took a quarter of a century for that place to materialize, but in 1875, a plot of land was bought in Cinnamon Gardens for Rs. 4,181. A foundation stone was laid on April 4, 1876 and the church of Rev. F. D. Waldock’s design was built by 1877 at the expense of Rs. 22,126.

A Sinhala church that met separately in the Pettah warehouse in the 1870s was also invited to move its meetings to the Cinnamon Gardens premises. But the English church continued to be a colonial endeavor until 1874, when Mr. P. D. De Silva, the first Sinhala name to appear on the church records, was elected deacon.

In 1874 the congregation also became independent of the Baptist Missionary Society. So in 1875, the then Open Communion Baptist Church became the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church, celebrating both the independence and the physical move.

Becoming the ‘Roundabout’ Church

When they first bought the property, the Cinnamon Gardens locality was highly residential, described in the church history as a “leafy solitude”. But the bustle of the Pettah quickly followed the congregation to the intersection at the Lipton circus.

During the Second World War, the church neighborhood was a hub of activity. The presence of foreign armed forces gave the church plenty of opportunity to “exercise Christian hospitality”. And in return, as the record goes:

“These young forces personnel flooded our church, took the [youth movement] by storm and almost ran it, swelled our choir and occupied our pulpit.”

So much so that once the forces left, the church fell into a “lull”. But this “lull” brought other good news.

The 1898 history records an “attempt to unite the Sinhala/Tamil and English congregations,” in order to get away from the elitist label it had gained over the years. Although this attempt didn’t bear immediate fruit, there was gradual change. Half a century later, it was obvious that the membership had become “less exclusive than it was once, and … a much truer cross section of the educated population of Ceylon”.

The metamorphosis boomed in the late 1950s. Rev. Sutton Smith revived evangelism with open-air programs and creative presentations of the gospel even in rural areas and prisons. He also strengthened inclusiveness by turning the separate Sinhala/Tamil and English churches into one church with two congregations in 1961. In 1963, he concluded the 150th anniversary history with strong words:

“The fact is that we are faced today with a daunting task, and we are not sufficient for it … May God make us a people of prayer, a dedicated people, willing to be used, people strong enough in the Spirit to take the opportunity that lies outside our Church doors."

Nihal Perera, one of the oldest and most senior members of the current congregation remembers Sutton Smith’s time, and sees the transformation the church has gone through, since:

“This church is primarily for the Sinhala and Tamil speaking roundabout community … In my youth, all the members came from far away. Now, the members and leaders in the Tamil/Sinhala congregation originally came from the nearby tenements.”

A significant event in this transformation took place in the 1980s when the Sunday school doors were opened to all children in the neighborhood.

“It was supposed to be the bourgeois Colombo 07 area” Perera says, “and we were also tagged as a Colombo 07 church. But from that time we tried hard to break through that and say we are for the people in the area.”

As Perera remembers it, the church “tried to be indigenous. We introduced Sinhala singing and songwriting, used the magul bere and the thabla, and had our plays in Sinhala and Tamil. When all these people were calling us a Colombo 7 church, we were having avurudu celebrations!”

The ‘Purpose-Driven’ Church

On February 20, 1988, the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church took another solid step towards becoming a truly local body. Rev. Kingsley Perera was ordained and became the first national pastor of the church.

Rev. Perera was Assistant Commissioner at the Department of Probation and Child Care Services until 1987 and his interest in social work continued to influence his pastoral work. Through his initiative, in 1992 the church opened the Dev Piya Sevana, where they housed many of their already well-established outreach programs including a cafeteria and counseling services. This further helped the church to reach out, as Sutton-Smith envisioned, outside its doors.

But the most recent and tangible change came about in the lead up to the Easter of 2007. Under the guidance of current pastor Rev. Gary Dean, the church body took on the ‘Forty Days of Purpose’ study by Rick Warren.

“I don’t know how folks knew about it,” Rev. Dean muses. But the impact was tangible. “It was a powerful time.”

Nearly 80 percent of the congregation was involved in a study group during the period. This led to greater involvement of the membership in all areas of church activity, and a radical restructuring of its organization and constitution.

Rev. Kingsley Perera, now in his retirement, looks at the current congregation and is encouraged.

“There has been tremendous growth in the church, both physically and spiritually,” he says.

And as far as one may see and hear, the congregation at the Colombo 7 roundabout has grown as Rev. Weerasinghe envisioned, steadily, over two centuries, into a truly purpose driven church.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

MemoryScape: Layla Gonaduwa

Both the woman and the art are like the hair. There’s shape to the short-ish style, but a few flyaway strands get caught in her fingers. It’s black, like everyone else’s, but the highlights wink a little “colour”, and if you look closely enough, a grey strand here and there will tell you she’s given life something to reckon with.

Layla Gonaduwa, self-labelled “inspirationalist” and artist, is showcasing her latest solo work, a collection of 30 wall installations in copper and enamel at the Barefoot Gallery, from October 5 to 15. The exhibition, titled ‘MemoryScape’, is what she sees as the beginning of a backward-autobiographical process.

“It’s some part of letting go,” she explains, “but also definitely an embracing and coming to terms with.”

Each piece in the collection is inspired by a distinct and intensely personal memory from the past two years or so.

“It might be difficult for people to figure out what I’m trying to say, but to me, it’s definitely snapshots of moments in my life.”

While her previous dream-inspired exhibition was more 3D, in the artist’s words, this is “more flat”.

“There is no case of interpreting it in a different way ... Maybe not for the viewer, but for me, there is no room to go anywhere else. There is no room to change colour or design, it will always be that for me.”

Knowing the exact memory the pieces spring from, imbues the colours, textures and other details with greater significance for the viewer. All the more so, since the installations are very much a literal translation of visual and auditory memory to visual and tactile symbols. One does not need a sophisticated understanding of line and light to interpret the collection. But this literalness also opens the possibility of making things concrete.

Needless to say, Gonaduwa is bold. Her glittering pottu and nose-stud testify to that. The current collection grew out of diary-entry like pieces of writing that she scrawled randomly, making it a huge emotional investment. She is not sure how she will deal with a public response and therefore it seems necessary to cement her art in this way.

The collection is also intentionally colourful, because, as she puts it, laughing, “I’ve had a very colourful life!”

With each set of pieces, Gonaduwa exhibits the writing that inspired it. Again, snapshots, abstract, but not too obscure.

“I have kept this [project] very close to my heart,” she admits. “My kids have seen some of it, but otherwise I’ve been very closed with this.”

As the project is very personal, so is the process of producing it.

“It’s an intensely physical process,” she enthuses, “and that physicalness is addictive.”

Gonaduwa works with a 50-year-old electric kiln. Once in her studio for the day, she switches it on, and while it heats up to around 1700 degrees Celcius, works through the concepts for the pieces. She first fires the copper sheet and then plunges it in water, to purify it, repeating the process until she’s happy with how it looks. Then she lays powdered glass on the copper and fires it again. This is the tricky part.

When the glass powder is laid on, Gonaduwa knows how she wants the colours and the textures to materialize. But they don’t always come out how she plans, so she’s apprehensive until she sees the final creation.

On the flip side, “there is always the chance that things might come out better than you expected” she laughs.

The glass is fired repeatedly and layer upon layer of powder applied until the depth of colour and texture she wants are achieved or even approached. In the process, the copper and glass layers are also infused into each other. Sometimes she adds fabrics, precious metals and other organic materials to the pieces as she works. The final result is a sheet of glittering, textured, patterned, brilliantly coloured glass on copper. 

These sheets are laid out, in linear progression, like mosaic tiles, to tell the story of each memory.

Through great physical exertion, she has forged a technically innovative visual representation of the electro-chemical patterns in her brain. The collection is more the artist than one might expect. The installations are uniform frames of tradition barely containing rebelliously brilliant colours that mask, if only minimally, depth and sometimes rough texture.

Layla Gonaduwa is an artist and single mother of two children without whom she would be “nothing”.
The exhibition is ultimately a flamboyant display of maternity and femininity forged, literally, in fire, declaring “look at me, this is who I am.”

“And who I am, constantly changes” she laughs.

MemoryScape is open for public viewing at the Barefoot Gallery from October 5 to October 15.