Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Daniel" by Angelo Pereira

Angelo Pereira always loved plays. He was never an actor or director of any sort, but grabbed every chance to see theatrical productions.

“I learnt a lot by watching,” he says. “I learnt a lot about plots, and about acting and directing.”
It is not a surprise, then, that into his twenties, whenever he re-read a familiar story from the bible, play-scripts just seemed to present themselves to Pereira. He took one of his completed scripts to his good friend Dominic Kellar from Pussweddilla fame, in 2011. And in December of that year, they produced “Star of Wonder” based on the story of the magi who were at Christ’s birth.

At the first staging, glancing through the audience, Pereira was surprised to realize that most of the spectators were “people not from the church and not [his] friends”. Word had got out and the play made a small hit.

And now, the events might just be about to repeat themselves. Albeit on a much grander scale.
Although “Daniel” is only the first major theatrical production of a work by young playwright Angelo Pereira, the enthusiasm behind the (literal and figurative) scenes signals much more than that. Pereira has well-known names like Jerome de Silva, Domini Kellar and Dhanan Senathirajah backing him up on a maiden project that could be the beginnings of a legacy.

The story of the play begins with Dhanan Senathirajah. Head of Finance and Planning at NDB by day, he is bible teacher on the weekends. And by night he writes. Bringing his father’s love for history, his mother’s love of God and 30 years of bible-teaching experience together, Senathirajah wrote “Daniel out of His Comfort Zone” in 2011. The book contextualizes, historically and psychologically, the biblical tale of Daniel who was thrown in the lion’s den.

Pereira had heard of Senathirajah long before 2011, so on a whim, he decided to go for the launch of “Daniel out of His Comfort Zone”.

“It was completely random,” Pereira says, “I had decided not to go, but ultimately went and even got myself a book.”

From there, the history and psychology had him hooked.

“Even while he was reading the book, [Pereira] would call me after finishing each chapter and tell me he was inspired and touched by it,” Senathirajah says.

So when, after finishing the book, Pereira suggested a play based on it, Senathirajah was ready to go. The author calls the playwright “quite brilliant”, and true to the compliment, Pereira finished the first draft of “Daniel” in what Senethirajah says was “a matter of days”.

Senethirajah was so excited to see the text of the play that he read and edited it while walking through airport terminals. And then a bigger idea started whispering.

Another pleasant surprise on Senathirajah’s list of diverse commitments is the Christian Arts Foundation (CHRAFT). And of course, he is good pals with Jerome de Silva. Here is possibly the highest accomplished English theatre director in Sri Lanka to date, and a fresh script by a passionate young writer. The rest is probably history.

Jerome de Silva “jumped at the idea” of producing Pereira’s script, Senathirajah says.

“There is so much of drama in the Bible!” de Silva enthuses. “I find it fascinating, the process of turning a bible story in to a drama.”

De Silva was, in fact, still in that very process with “Jesus Christ Superstar” when Senathirajah told him about “Daniel”. He was familiar with the story, and had already directed a musical version of it, so he took the project on with no hesitation, knowing what energy and potential it held.

From that point forward, it has been a revelatory experience for Pereira.

“Jerome is phenomenal,” the playwright says. “When I finished editing the script, I handed it over to him and told him now it’s his turn, my work is done.”

Pereira, in what appears to be a characteristically unassuming fashion, is now caught up in the production just as any other spectator would be. His eyes light up as he describes his emotions at seeing what de Silva is doing with his script, with literal showers of Nebuchadnezzar’s gold, and silent sinister smiles that say so much more than just the words on the page.

“There are elements of horror in the story which I never foresaw,” Pereira continues in disbelief. “But when I see the actors...” he trails off, lost for words.

The four main roles in the production are all played by Muslim actors, a fact that may come as a surprise to some. But for Pereira it is an encouraging opportunity to “learn from each other” and grow together, discovering that despite coming from different backgrounds, they are “on the same page”.

The rest of the cast of “Daniel” is a combination of new as well as familiar faces. Some of the actors, like Niren Ranasinghe (playing Nebuchadnezzar), are those who have already been a part of major theatrical productions. Senathirajah, the author of “Daniel out of His Comfort Zone”, the book on which the play is based, is also part of the cast. Many others are products of the Annual Interschool Shakespeare Drama Competition, and people that the director, de Silva, has been looking forward to working with.

Such a cast, under the guidance of Jerome de Silva, is bringing to life the horror and glamour of Daniel’s story. A story written with the simple and earnest pen of a young writer, Angelo Pereira, reflecting Senathirajah’s love of God and history. “Daniel” could be an unforgettable moment in Sri Lanka’s history of English theatre.

Don’t miss it!

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