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The themes of the play, now regarded as a canonical work of black theatre, are still relevant today with its depiction of immigration, the struggles faced by the African Diaspora, and the sacrifices and aspirations of a post-war community living in poverty.
Born in Trinidad in 1921, Errol John worked as a journalist before moving to England in 1951 to find work in the theatre. He appeared on the London stage in a number of productions, most notably the part of Othello in a production at The Old Vic Theatre in 1962. He also made several appearances in a number of television and film productions, albeit playing relatively minor black characters including The African Queen (1952), The Heart of the Matter (1953) and Simba (1955), and had major staring roles in the BBC series including A Man from the Sun (1956), and Rainbow City (1967).
John began to focus on writing, frustrated with his lack of job opportunities as an actor. He wrote his first play The Tout in 1949 but his most feted work still remains the seminal Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which won the Observer award for most promising playwright in 1957. Recognised as a significant classic of Caribbean theatre, this colourful, vividly told drama was originally staged at the Royal Court in 1958, and then in 1962, as a revised production in New York.
However, following a brief tour, the play has faded into relative obscurity. The tragicomic plot takes place in the post-war setting of Old Macs Yard in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and focuses on the complex relationships of the Adams family, chiefly the struggle of tram driver Ephraim, who dreams of moving to England to escape the impoverished slums, as soldiers are returning from the Second World War.
The cramped claustrophobia of the location and heightened tension recalls the simmering, kitchen-sink melodrama of American playwright Tennessee Williams. Bringing to life a multitude of stories, and featuring a diverse range of characters, calypso songs, children’s rhymes, and West Indian patois, this is a vibrant but harsh evocation of the hardship of poverty, faded dreams, ambition and regret in a post-war Trinidadian community.