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CULTURE-CARIBBEAN: ‘Sitting In Limbo’ Highlights Grenada’s Bloody Coup

Howard Campbell

KINGSTON, Apr 19 1999 (IPS) - After earning her keep for most of her life as an economist, Dawn Penso decided to change gears by throwing her energies into her hobby – writing. Her debut is a theatrical interpretation of a tragic Caribbean figure.

“Sitting In Limbo,” a play based loosely on the imprisonment of Jamaica-born political activist, 56-year-old Phyllis Coard, is scheduled for a brief run in Kingston in late April.

The part fictional “Sitting In Limbo” – the name of the play – was written by Dawn Penso and Judith Hepburn two London-based Jamaicans. It looks at the turbulent relationship between Coard and her warder, “Nita”, played by Hepburn.

Coard was involved in the bloody coup that took place in the tiny island of Grenada in 1983. Her husband, Bernard Coard, was one of then Prime Minister Maurice Bishop’s deputies while she served as Secretary for Women’s Affairs in the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG).

Bernard Coard is said to have been the mastermind behind the tragic events which resulted in the death of Bishop and several others. The coup was eventually suppressed by a combined Caribbean and U.S army.

Today, Phyllis and Bernard Coard and several others are in prison in Grenada serving life sentences, having been convicted of the murder of Bishop, three members of his cabinet and several other persons.

Penso and Hepburn spent nearly one year on their first project which took the 50 plus-year-old Penso twice to Grenada for research on the plight of Coard whom she has never met.

“We are not calling the person in the play Phyllis Coard though the play is based on her,” says the Kingston-born Penso. “It’s more than about Phyllis Coard, it’s about attitudes in the Caribbean.”

“Sitting In Limbo,” Penso explains, is also not all fiction.

“It’s a dramatic work, a lot of dialogue between two women,” she says. “I can’t say that most of the words took place but in terms of her being in jail and trying to get her sentence commuted, that’s certainly factual.”

Though she left Jamaica to live in London in 1973, Penso was not familiar with Coard who, at the time, was a teacher in the department of sociology at the University of West Indies’ Mona (Kingston) campus.

Coard returned with her husband to his native Grenada in the late 1970s. There, they backed Bishop’s leftist New Jewel Movement party which toppled the government of Eric Gairy in 1979.

An economist by profession, Penso first became aware of Coard’s plight while preparing a television documentary on Caribbean women in politics.

“Some of the things we bring out in the play are direct results of talking to people and reading manuscripts of interviews with people,” says Penso of her eye-opening visits to Grenada. “This play brings out things that are not widely known.”

One aspect of Coard’s personality that Penso found fascinating was her commitment to change. Like her husband, she too was a firebrand.

“She was very active in Grenada, she did a lot for the women out there, getting involved in the life of the country,” Penso says. “So, in that context she was a radical.”

In all, “Sitting In Limbo” took eight months to complete and opened in London in April, 1998, playing for three weeks. According to Penso, reviews and audience response to the drama has been encouraging.

“It was very interesting, we had a very good turnout from the West Indian community as well as the English community,” she points out, adding that Coard’s adult daughter (now a lawyer) attended one of the shows.

“We had a long talk about it (the play), she said her mother was a more sympathetic character than how she is portrayed, but she was quite intrigued by it,” says Penso.

Though she too is intrigued by the story of Phyllis Coard, Penso says she has “no political axe to grind.”

However, she hopes the play will revive awareness of Phyllis Coard’s dilemma. A plea for Coard’s release last came two years ago from the Grenada Conference of Churches about the time when Penso and Hepburn were completing research for “Sitting In Limbo.”

Then Coard was said to be suffering from various illnesses which could not be adequately treated at the Richmond Hill Prison. The plea was rejected by the Mercy Committee, but it set off a sustained and nationwide debate which confirmed that there was still widespread hostility to those convicted for the killing of Bishop and thought to have been responsible for the subsequent collapse of the PRG.

Writing plays was not exactly Dawn Penso’s cup of tea when she left Jamaica for England in the early 1970s.

With a degree in economics from the University of the West Indies and an Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) in finance from Columbia University, she was more than qualified for a career in the business world.

Fascinated by writing, she took a course in the creative aspect of the art, then launched into short story writing before co-writing “Sitting In Limbo”.

She recently completed her first book and is presently shopping around for a publisher.

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