Actress Ingrid Griffith wrote Demerara Gold, her one-woman play as an autobiographical account of immigrating from Guyana to the United States, while dealing with growing pains and domestic violence at home. Griffith herself stars as eighteen characters, ranging from an excitable 7-year-old to a rigid schoolmarm grandmother.
Griffith, who has recently earned praise for her role in Tina Andrew’s Buckingham, says Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun partly inspired her to write her story. “I was playing the role of Ruth in a production when I thought, I should write my story, the Caribbean immigrant’s coming-to-America story,” Griffith told the Voice. “My parents’ dream of moving our family to the U.S. for a better life and the aspirations of the Younger family were similar.”
The stark set consists of one chair, a screen, and speakers that blast everything from calypso drums to Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” at emotionally resonant moments. “I love music,” she laughed after one performance. Right before, she had whipped out a selfie stick to take a picture with the audience. That kind of warmth translates to the stage.
This coming-of-age story melds wit with drama, producing inescapably funny, quirky moments. The play opens with Griffith’s parents leaving for America, where they plan to save up for visas for her and her sister. It will be 5 years before Griffith gets to see her parents in America. But in the mean time she’s sent to live with Ada, her strict grandmother, whose lessons will be familiar to any woman from the Caribbean.
A typical talking to, delivered in a raspy patois: “1. Boys are dirty. 2. Boys are trouble. 3. Boys will get you pregnant. 4. Stay away from boys.” The lessons prove resonant later in a delightfully acrobatic and hallucinogenic scene involving a romp in the backseat of a car.
Griffith’s frank portrayal of a young girl coming to terms with her sexuality — and the brutality of men — is especially timely during Women’s History Month. “I was born a feminist,” she explains, “I’m glad that I’m of this era when you’re not burned at the stakes for being a girl and woman who will not be dominated…In Guyana, I was called ‘own way.’ ”
Domestic violence is a specter that haunts Griffith’s time in America. It follows her to school and back, culminating in a terrifying showdown between father and daughter. “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 ones to break the cycle,” she explained.
Griffith began performing Demerara Gold in 2014 and has since traveled to Guyana and the UK to stage the play for international audiences. She’s partnered with Braata Productions, an organization dedicated to showcasing Caribbean culture, to perform the show at New Perspective Theater this weekend.
Though she promotes the visibility of Caribbean narratives, Griffith refuses to be pigeonholed. When I suggested immigrants might relate more to her play than Americans, she was quick to correct me: “The immigrant experience, I believe, is common to most Americans.”
The heart, humor, and poignancy Griffith delivers her play with will prove her right.
By Ingrid Griffith
New Perspectives Theater
456 West 37th Street
Through March 12