January 25, 2010

Pamela Mordecai and the Making of El Numero Uno

First, I must say that I enjoyed reading about exploits of your little pig, and that my only regret is that I won’t be able to see El Numero Uno when it opens in Toronto on January 31, 2010.

But now to the serious stuff—the interview.

1.       One of the most remarkable aspects if the play is the range of languages. What prompted you to make these choices? 

In the final analysis, I think what I’ve made is a mashup – of languages and cultures and archetypes – somewhat in the manner of Manu Chao. Manu Chao is a folk singer who was born in France, but is of Spanish origin (Basque and Galician) and he sings in French, Spanish, English, Arabic, and Portuguese, and occasionally in other languages. On almost any trolley in Toronto, you can hear many languages, not only being used, but integrated seamlessly, spliced into one another – Spanglish and Arabish and Frankish and Creole-and-English and Yiddish-English and so on. So any mix-up of languages is true-to-life, at least true to our life here in Toronto.

I also wanted to address the problem of what our Governor-General, MichaĆ«lle Jean, refers to as les solitudes. (This is a riff, if you like, on the conventional Canadian paradigm of ‘the two solitudes’, English and French, which largely live in their own world; Mme Jean, originally from Haiti, has said, controversially, that there are several solitudes in Canada.) We need to accept the fact that we are one world of many cultures, that language is an important, perhaps the important, carrier of a culture, and that we need to start, not just appreciating, but entering and taking part in as many cultures as we can. If we don’t do that, we are going to miss an awful lot that is good and beautiful and rewarding, and we’ll probably be perpetually at war because we don’t know one another well enough.

2.       More on the question of choices? A pig as a star in a play about identity?

To be honest, that came about as a result of how the play developed. In 1995 I was one of four storytellers invited to the 25th IBBY Conference, held in Groningen, Netherlands. Dutch author and illustrator, Max Velthuijs, created a series of illustrations, and three other storytellers, among them Zimbabwean writer, Charles Mungoshi and I, were invited to create tales to go along with Max’s images. We were told we could shuffle the images around as much as we liked. The images were projected on screen in the order we chose when the stories were being told to the audience at the conference. Max’s hero was a pig, and thus was El Numero Uno, aka Le Premier Cochon, aka the Number One Pig, born. He was a huge hit at the conference, and so perhaps destined from then to go on to greater things!

In about 2001, when I first produced a treatment for the play based on the story, Uno was already a pig, and the cast of characters was pretty much determined. It never occurred to me to change them. Besides which, why shouldn’t a pig be the star of a play about identity? So many of us dislike ourselves, and often the thing we dislike most is our body, and often the reason we dislike our bodies is that they are fat. And if we are fat, that’s exactly what we say – “I look like a pig!” Fat is a source of such discomfort and unhappiness for a lot of adults and adolescents, boys and girls, so why not an adolescent pig that is a hero and not a repulsive creature?

3.       The play works extremely well because the characters all have a dramatic function and so there is an organic rhythm to the plot. However, will there be a glossary/guide for students who may be so drawn into the play that they miss the significance of characters such as Pitchy Patchy

The [Ontario] curriculum expectations as expressed in the guide link to objectives in the arts, social studies, language, history, and geography. They include analysis of oral texts; identification of presentation strategies and their effects on the audience; identification of tone, pace, pitch, volume and sound effects, and practice in using them. All of these will of course help students to demonstrate an understanding of the information and ideas in the play and the dramatic process. There’s also an introduction to reviewing that helps students to look analytically at the play, and talk and write critically about it.

I think discussions such as the one you suggest fall well within the scope of these goals.

4.       I’ve also noticed that our old friend, Anansi, under the guise of Compere Lapin, is in the play, yet he doesn’t have the role of the solver of riddles. Interestingly, you use Ras Onelove for this. Why?

It’s a Canadian-Caribbean story, with roots in Holland, an international character, and a sort of Jamaican pantomime approach. The characters – most but not all – are borrowed from a variety of traditions and I’ve taken some liberties with them. Compere Lapin, as we all know, comes from the Anansi story tradition in the American south and in the Caribbean. In some ways, I suppose, he does resemble Anansi, though I didn’t have Anansi in mind when I created Lapin. I guess they are similar in some ways: both have lots of children and have a hard time keeping them fed; Anansi can be regarded as a suspicious type, and Lapin is certainly suspicious; and both of them are undoubtedly very focused on their own problems. But, as you say, Lapin isn’t the problem-solver. Ras Onelove invited himself into the play – he was the last character to enter – and he wrote his own role as a speaker of heavenly truths, which of course is what a prophet is, rather than a foreteller of the future. As for Ras Onelove’s solving of riddles, I think he helps Uno begin to solve the riddle of who he is, what it really means to be El Numero Uno. That is undoubtedly the biggest riddle in the play, and Ras Onelove starts helping Uno from the very first time that they meet. The other riddle solving is a job to which everyone contributes, with the crucial unraveling being done by the littlest ones.

5.       In your interview with YardEdge, you mentioned a Shakespearean influence. Did this have anything with the inclusion of twins, mistaken identities, and a theme of appearances vs. reality?

Alas, alas! The twins were suggested by the original illustrations of Max Velthuijs. There’s only one respect in which I deliberately set out to do something Shakespearean in this play. I use rhymes to signal where most scenes end. Shakespeare isn’t the only playwright who did that, but I thought of him when I was doing it. If he’s in there in any other ways, in the mistaken identities or the theme of appearances vs. reality, those influences are subliminal: he got in there on the QT!

Thank you Pam and I wish you much success with Uno, the famous pig from Lopinot!

Thank you, Geoff. It’s always a treat to be on this blogspot! And thanks for the good wishes for the Number One Pig, for he needs all the help he can get as he struggles to grow up!


Photo by Martin Mordecai

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