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Sunday, 23 March 2014

Miss Miles makes mas on stage again

Austin Fido
“The other day, a friend said to me, ‘You know, I never miss mass,’” says the character Gene Miles from the stage of the Little Carib Theatre, adopting the slightly haughty tone of well-intended piety. “Well, neither do I,” she concludes, with the semblance of a wink to her audience. It’s a funny line in the context of the play, Miss Miles—The Woman of the World, and in the context of Carnival 2014, which was a busy season for Gene Miles, perhaps her busiest since her death in 1972. “I dyed my hair blonde so everyone would understand: I am not Miss Miles,” says Cecilia Salazar, whose ability to inhabit a character is saluted by nine Cacique Awards.
Miss Miles—Mas Corruption, in Port-of-Spain on Carnival Monday. Photo: Maria Nunes

Miss Miles, however, is no ordinary character for the actor. She likens the role to a masters degree. Salazar and playwright Tony Hall first got together in 2006 to discuss a production based on the life of the T&T civil servant, TV personality, socialite and anti-corruption crusader. The play premiered in 2011 and has been regularly revived, in full and in part, ever since—most recently on March 8-9. This is no masters. If Gene Miles is part of Cecilia Salazar’s education as an actor, she is her PhD. This year Salazar brought Miss Miles to Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s, for a week-long pre-Carnival stint in the 3Canal Show, Grimee. When the curtain went down for the last time in St Ann’s, Miss Miles took to the road for Carnival Monday, leading a band through Port-of-Spain.
The band, designed by Peter Minshall, put every member in the same costume: Gene Miles, reimagined as an “avenging angel” (Minshall’s phrase), elegant and furious. For the mas, Miss Miles is a woman dressed in black, made iconic by a simple polka-dotted belt and matching headband, a dystopian halo of feathers, and a mask. It became the face of Carnival 2014. That face—sheet white, with a strong jaw, high cheekbones, a burst of black lashes under sharp, slashing eyebrows; stark, red lips, caught in a pout between seduction and censure—is hard to forget.
On the road, the black-and-white procession brought banners, placards, and Gene Miles’ tenacious condemnation of corruption to a new audience.

“When we went to Piccadilly [Piccadilly Greens, a judging point in the parade of the bands], children came and asked me what costume we were playing, who it was,” recalls Salazar. “I talked to them about Gene Miles and they held the placards. We spent a good time talking to them—children and children, children all around us.” The band drew spontaneous applause from onlookers, even when simply moving through tight streets to the next judging point. “Outside Renegades’ panyard,” says Hall, “it was so exciting, people in the band were saying ‘Let’s do a drama and perform!’” “It moved people who saw it,” says Salazar, while taking off her makeup backstage at the Little Carib on March 8, International Women’s Day. The story of Gene Miles is a tragedy: a woman who strayed close enough to the nexus of power in pre-and post-Independence Trinidad to see the disfiguring impact of political control, shed light on that ugliness, and was destroyed by it. She spoke out, in the 1960s, against a seemingly clear-cut, almost banal, instance of corruption, the Gas Station Racket.

The simple observation that a senior figure in the government’s licencing of gas stations appeared to be lacking impartiality in his decision-making was spun into a show trial, more focused, at times, on Miles’s integrity than that of the government. She weathered irrelevant lines of questioning about whether she had ever been a topless model, stuck to her guns, and lived to see a scant measure of justice afforded her efforts. The senior factory inspector, her boss whose apparent blindness to certain gas-station licence applications sparked the whole affair, was removed from his position at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mines in June 1968. Miss Miles—The Woman of the World tells this story from Gene Miles’s perspective, following her from birth to death. It is a one-woman play: we see one actor playing one character. Everyone else is played by Gene Miles: parents, the scolding nun who tells her she is inappropriately dressed for a teacher at a convent school; the men who question her in court, try to shut her up, watch her shut up in the “madhouse in St Ann’s,” rape her and see her unravel, drunk and incoherent in the street.

It is a play at times unsettling to its audience. We watch Gene Miles grow up, watch her change her clothes, from schoolgirl’s uniform to work suit to evening wear to straitjacket. We listen to her voice mature, her values form under influence of the church and the example set by her father, himself a whistleblower of another era. Mr Miles exposed the Caura Dam Racket. There is no record of his ever being questioned about appearing bare-chested in front of a camera. Most actors will tell you they draw heavily on “emotional memory” on stage: think about something that makes you sad so you can shed real tears on stage, for example. For Salazar, Miss Miles is inextricably tangled up with real memories. Part of this is the collaborative, improvisational stagecraft Tony Hall christened the “Jouvay Process.” There is a moment in the play when schoolgirl Gene recounts leading her house to victory in the march-past at sports day: “Our house adds flags to the event and changes it forever. “That was me,” says Salazar, “Except it wasn’t flags, it was fishnets.”

Salazar feels a closeness to Gene Miles based on more than playing her on stage. “She was born in August, I was born in August. We are both Leos. She went to St Joseph’s Convent, I went to St Joseph’s Convent. She’s a white Trinidadian with Portuguese parents, my mother is Portuguese. I lived in Glencoe, right next to where Gene Miles lived, till I was about three years old.”
Whatever its provenance, the authenticity of the performance is endorsed by a photo album which Salazar brings into her dressing room every time she prepares to go on stage as Gene Miles.
 It is a gift from the Miles family, who did not participate in the development of the script, preferring to leave painful memories undisturbed. The album, filled with original photographs of Gene as child and adult, was entrusted to Hall and Salazar after her surviving family had seen the play for themselves.

Miss Miles—The Woman of the World will next be staged in Hartford, Connecticut, April 24- 26, at Garmany Hall, Austin Arts Center, Trinity College.

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