Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

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Moon on a Rainbow Shawl
Written byErrol John
  • Ephraim
  • Ketch
  • Ester Adams
  • Mavis
  • Sailor
  • Sophia Adams
  • Old Mack
  • Rosa
  • Janette
  • Policeman
  • Prince
  • Charlie Adams
  • Soldier
  • A Boy
  • Taxi Driver
Date premieredDecember 4, 1958 (1958-12-04)
Place premieredRoyal Court Theatre London
Original languageEnglish
SettingPort of Spain, Trinidad

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl is a 1957 play written by Trinidadian actor-playwright Errol John. Described as "ground-breaking"[1] and "a breakthrough in Britain for black writing," the play has been produced and revived worldwide since its premiere at London's Royal Court Theatre.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Set in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the play opens on a hot, late evening in the yard of two dilapidated buildings. Ephraim is just returning from his work as a trolleybus , and converses with Esther Adams, left home alone with her newborn brother. Esther, a very intelligent and studious girl, discusses how her family cannot afford for her to go to high school. Ephraim, secretly envious of her youth and opportunity to make a better life for herself than he has, encourages her. Esther’s mother, Sophia comes home. Later, while Ephraim is sleeping, Rosa, Ephraim’s lover, returns to the yard with their landowner and her employer, Old Mack. She is wearing solid gold earrings and other things that Old Mack has given her. Old Mack forces himself on Rosa despite her protests and struggles. Sophia, overhearing all this, interrupts him, and he leaves. Sophia tells Rosa that because she is proudly wearing his gifts "he is right to seek his rights".[3] She then asks Rosa if she has "told" Ephraim yet, to which she responds that she has not. Rosa goes and wakes Ephraim. After kissing and her asking him if he would like to sleep with her, Ephraim rolls over and tells her to leave.

The next morning, policemen are investigating the café at which Rosa works. While Ephraim secretly listens, Rosa tells Sophia that it was robbed and that she also intends to "tell" Ephraim later that night. Rosa leaves with a policeman who makes her return to the café. Ephraim goes into the yard, and Sophia suspects that Ephraim is "up to something".[4] Charlie, Sophia’s husband, comes home drunk. When Rosa returns and sees Charlie, she immediately goes to her room.

That evening, Rosa tries to seduce Ephraim, but he will not sleep with her. Rosa discloses that she found Charlie’s hat at the café, so she knows that he robbed the café. Due to this and the police’s questioning, she fears that they will arrest Charlie. Ephraim yells at her endangering the Adams family when the wealthy, stingy Old Mack "could well afford to lose"[5] the money stolen, and for accepting and wearing his expensive gifts. Ephraim tells her he is leaving for Liverpool the following day. Rosa reveals that she is pregnant with his child, which does not sway his decision to leave. Rosa, furious, leaves.

The next day, Charlie, fearful that Old Mack’s employee, Stephen, is going to be arrested for his crime, confides to Sophia that he robbed the café, and then went drinking. As Sophia suggests that they have Rosa speak to Old Mack and return the remaining money, Ephraim, overhearing the conversation, and demands that Sophia give him the money so he return it without Charlie being implicated. At this moment, the police show up, and, seeing this exchange, arrest Charlie.

Later that afternoon, Esther returns to an empty home. Sophia, unable to pay bail, comes home and tells Esther what has occurred. Distraught, Esther blames her mother and runs off. Rosa informs Sophia that Old Mack said "the matter was out of his hands",[6] and that she has given up on Ephraim—despite knowing that he is the father because she has slept with no one else. In the evening, Ephraim is packing, and Sophia returns home after futilely searching for Esther. In spite of Sophia confronting him about abandoning a pregnant Rosa, Ephraim leaves the yard in a taxi. Sophia tries to comfort Rosa that she will be supported, but her words are interrupted by the sound of Old Mack calling from Rosa's room. The play ends with Esther’s return, warmly calling for her mother.


Ephraim: A young man who feels trapped in a Trinidadian society where opportunity and upward mobility is scarce and the rich abuse the poor. He wants more out of life, and sees Charlie’s life as a future parallel to his own—barely scraping by, poor, and with dreams that can never be fulfilled.

Sophia Adams: A spirited although physically and emotionally exhausted woman, who is wife to Charlie and mother to Esther and her newborn boy. She cares fiercely for Esther’s future, wants her to have a life outside of the yard and not end up like Mavis, and practices tough love on Esther and Charlie as a result. She also looks after Rosa as if she was family, and even offers to help her take care of her child when it is born.

Rosa: A young woman who was orphaned and subsequently raised by Nuns. Ephraim was the first and only man she had sex with prior to Ephraim telling her that he was leaving, thus her story, her choice to be with Old Mack so her child can have a father, is one of a loss and corruption of innocence.

Old Mack: A 65-year-old, wealthy man. He owns the shacks that the Adams’, Ephraim, Rosa, and Mavis live in, as well as the café where Rosa works. Sophia notes that "he is a man [she’s] never [known] to be generous,"[3] showing that his gifts to Rosa are obvious signs of his affection. His miserly nature propels the conflict that occurs in the play.

Esther Adams: Sophia and Charlie Adams’ daughter. Young, bright and motivated, Esther represents a possibly positive future for Trinidad. The final stage directions note that Esther’s call for her mother "should give the impression that the future could still be hers."[7]

Charlie Adams: A former cricket player, who had dreams of playing professionally but was unable to achieve them because of the institutional racism he experienced. He is extremely supportive of his daughter and her efforts and, shown by his actions in the play, wants a bright and prosperous future for Esther.

Mavis: A prostitute who lives in the yard and whom Sophia detests. In the play, Mavis and her boyfriend (later fiancé) Prince serve primarily as comic relief.

Prince: Mavis’ boyfriend and foil. He is not particularly fond of her profession, and proposes to her during the course of the play in an attempt to stop her from seeing Americans as clients and as an apology for striking her.

Stage productions[edit]

Original 1958 cast and revised 1962 cast[edit]

The play in its first incarnation was staged at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on December 4, 1958. The cast was as follows:

Earle Hyman as Ephraim

Jacqueline Chan as Esther

Barbara Assoon as Mavis

Robert Jackson as American Soldier

Vinnette Carroll as Sophia

Lionel Ngakane as Old Mack

Soraya Rafat as Rosa

Johnny Sekka as Policeman

Berril Briggs as Janette

Leo Carera as Prince

John Bouie as Charlie

Leonard Davies as American Soldier

Clifton Jones as Young Murray

The revised version of the play was first staged on January 15, 1962, at the East 11th Street Theatre, New York. The cast was as follows:

James Earl Jones as Ephraim

Robert Hill II as Ketch

Kelly Marie Berry as Esther Adams

Cicely Tyson as Mavis

Michael Barton as Sailor

Vinnette Carroll as Sophia Adams

Melvin Stewart as Old Mack

Ellen Holly as Rosa

Ronald Mack as Policeman

Bill Gunn as Prince

Robert Earl Jones as Charlie Adams

Peter Owens as Soldier

Carolyn Strickland as Janette

Wayne Grice as A Boy

Warren Berry as Taxi Driver[8]

Notable revivals[edit]

In 1988 the Almeida Theatre, London, revived the play, directed by Maya Angelou.[9][10] March 2012 saw a revival at the National Theatre about which The Observer′s Kate Kellaway wrote: "Michael Buffong's entertaining production is tender and true."[11]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Recipient Won/Nominated
1957 Observer Award for Best New Playwright Errol John[12] WON
1962 Obie for Best Off-Broadway Actor James Earl Jones (Clandestine on the Morning Line, The Apple and Moon on a Rainbow Shawl) [13][14] WON
1962 Obie for Distinguished Performance by an Actress Vinnette Carroll (Sophia Adams)[15] WON
1988 Time Out Award for Best Performance by an Actress Claire Benedict (Sophia Adams)[16] WON
2012 Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Play Jenny Jules (Mavis)[17] NOMINATED


  1. ^ "Hoping For a Better Life". Bristol Evening Post. February 27, 2003. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
  2. ^ Chambers, Colin (2002). The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre. London: Continuum. p. 407. ISBN 0-8264-4959-X.
  3. ^ a b John, Errol (2012). Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. London: Faber and Faber Limited. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-571-29010-9.
  4. ^ John, Errol (2012). Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. p. 29.
  5. ^ John, Errol (2012). Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. p. 51.
  6. ^ John, Errol (2012). Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. p. 84.
  7. ^ John, Errol (2012). Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. p. 94.
  8. ^ John, Errol (2012). Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. pp. vii–viii.
  9. ^ Wolf, Matt (March 20, 2012). "The National Theatre's Global Flair". The New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2014.
  10. ^ Wardle, Irving (May 6, 1988). "Arts (Theatre): Avoiding dreams of defeat / Review of 'Moon on a Rainbow Shawl' at the Almeida". The Times. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
  11. ^ Kellaway, Kate (March 18, 2012). "Moon on a Rainbow Shawl; Can We Talk about This?; Shivered – review". The Observer. Retrieved February 1, 2014.
  12. ^ "Errol John; Voice of West Indian theatre; Obituary". The Times. July 16, 1988. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
  13. ^ "1961-1962 Obie Awards". Pearson Education, at Infoplease. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
  14. ^ Gilliam, Dorothy (December 4, 1977). "James Earl Jones, Nearly Content; It's Time, He Says, for Children - and For the 'Tragedy' of Paul Robeson". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
  15. ^ McKinley, Jesse (November 7, 2002). "Vinnette Carroll, Playwright And Director, Is Dead at 80". The New York Times. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
  16. ^ Williams, Roy. The Gift. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  17. ^ "Full List: Winners Announced of the 2013 Awards". Archived from the original on February 21, 2013. Retrieved April 12, 2013. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)