One Woman, Many Waters: Ingrid Griffith's 'Demerara Gold'
No one has eyes like Ingrid Griffith. They’re large, expressive, warm, knowing. And they always seem to be trained on you in the audience of her one-woman show, Demerara Gold.
Griffith is a multi-talented woman: a writer, classically trained actress, and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Acting, she says, gave her a chance to open up. Recalling her very first role she jokes, “I remember I played a flower. I had no lines. I just had to sit on the stage and smile for an hour.”
Since then, Griffith has starred in plays such as The Bassett Table, Doubt, and The Vagina Monologues. I asked her what her family thought of her acting. “In the Caribbean, parents want you to be either a doctor or lawyer. Any other career in their eyes said failure,” she laughs, “My family is happy for me and I'm glad to have their support, but they really have no idea why I would want to do this.”
Demerara Gold is Griffith’s autobiographical account of immigrating from Guyana to the United States. The play opens with her parents receiving American visas—two, to be exact. This means that they have to leave a 7 year-old Griffith and her older sister Dawn in Guyana, while they work in America to provide a new life for the family. In the meantime, the girls’ grandmothers care for them.
Adda, a stern schoolteacher, abides no foolishness. For a young lady that meant a whole host of restrictions. Granny, Griffith’s other grandmother, is a pious Christian woman who displays a gentle understanding when a young Ingrid acts out. The girls wait five years before they can say goodbye to their grandmothers and hello to America. However, awareness of a darker force mars Ingrid’s insistence that, “Everything will be perfect in America, you’ll see.”
“Studies show that in NYC, the Caribbean community has the highest [rate] of domestic violence,” Griffith tells me. Her performance, in honor of Women’s History Month in March, comes just months after the brutal slaying of Rajwantie Baldeo by her husband, Prem Rampersaud, in Queens. Baldeo’s daughters told news outlets that domestic violence was a constant in their lives and that Rampersaud had threatened to kill Baldeo before she left Guyana. In January, the New York-based group Jahajee Sisters had organized a vigil for Baldeo and other Caribbean women who have suffered domestic violence, the first demonstration of its kind. Griffith hopes for change, saying, “I bring it up in my show to help our community begin to understand that although domestic violence might seem normal, it is not healthy and we are the ones to break the cycle.”
In Demerara Gold, Griffith describes not being able to eat or focus on school as she realizes her father has been abusing her mother. While writing her show, she says, “There were lots of difficult moments that I had to work on. Watching my parents leave Guyana without me was difficult for me to play as the 7-year old. Playing my father as the person he had become was tough.” Still, Griffith offers a compassionate portrait of a frustrated, violent man; a respected school teacher turned factory worker slighted by the American dream.
The story itself is a tour de force, exploring everything from a young girl’s sexual awakening to the social dynamics between black Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, all in the span of an hour and twenty minutes. Griffith, who cites Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun as inspiration, started writing her play in 2013 for a creative writing master’s thesis. “After I earned my Master's Degree, I wasn't sure that if I did publish it as a memoir people would read it; and I really wanted the story and its message to be heard,” she explains. “So, I decided to begin writing it as a solo play. The solo show genre seemed doable.”
The show wasn’t just doable, it’s become a hit, well-received from every critic who’s reviewed it. Griffith partnered with Braata Productions, an organization dedicated exclusively to showcasing Caribbean culture, to produce the play. It’s been performed around the world and has even made its way to the Guyanese stage, in Georgetown, Linden and Berbice.
On her homecoming performance, she reflects, “To be honest, I had heard that the audience in Guyana would be a tough audience to please. I thought they would've been bored, like, ‘My story is so much worse than yours, why do I need to sit here and listen to this?’ But I was absolutely thrilled that they enjoyed it.”
Watching Griffith in person, it’s hard not to be engaged. One moment her eyes water with a child’s fear of abandonment, the next they sparkle knowingly as the narrator hints at what’s to come. “There is nothing like live theater in an intimate setting,” she tells me. “The power of the solo show genre…it’s like magic.” As it shows, not even a hardened Guyanese audience can resist.
Alana Mohamed is a Guyanese writer and librarian from Queens, NY. Her writing can be found in the Village Voice, Electric Cereal, Selfish Mag, and the Coalition Zine. She is the creator of Anxiety Dream Zine, but hopes to one day sleep soundly.