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Bravo! First Ever Revival Of Haiti At Theatricum Botanicum

The historical melodrama Haiti is in repertoire at Theatricum Botanicum in a first time ever revival about the Haitian Revolution. The first time this play was ever seen was on the stage of the New York Lafayette Theater in Harlem in 1938 in the middle of the Great Depression. It was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from the Federal Theater Project  (FTP) under the New Deal from 1935 – 1939. When asked how this play might be out of the box for Theatricum Botanicum’s usual repertoire, the play’s director, Ellen Geer, had the following to say.

Haiti speaks of freedom, justice, the wrongs of colonization and the suppressing of any culture and race by another,” said Geer. “Theatre expresses humanity for audiences to think about, relate to themselves and feel for the play’s subject and perhaps shift one’s thinking to be involved when injustices surface, to recognize. Haiti is a robust melodrama that tells the story of a time when there was a righting of a wrong. This should never be out of any box.”

The FTP funded theater and other live artistic performances and entertainment programs in the United States during the Great Depression under the Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration. Hallie Flanagan shaped the FTP into a federation of regional theaters. Under her leadership, millions of Americans saw live theater for the first time where theaters experimented in new forms and techniques and created relevant art. 

The WPA and the FTP were national projects. Therefore some of the works may not be owned by the talent that created them. One famous example is the WPA owned photograph by Dorothea Lange that has come to symbolize the Great Depression. It is the one of the immigrant mother with her children around her. Lange took that photograph while working for the WPA. She therefore doesn’t own the copyright to that photograph. It became the property of the WPA. When asked how Geer was able to obtain the rights to perform Haiti, she had a similar and complicated set of events.

“August  29, 1935, the Federal Theatre Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration was set up,” said Geer. “The United States Government took the position that talents of these professional theatre workers, together with the skills of painters, musicians and writers, made up a part of the national wealth which America could not afford to lose. Haiti was performed, and to this day, we have not found out how to give the royalties. The story of a black and mulatto community that takes back its nation, they are still fighting, still unheard.”

Congress canceled the FTP after objections to the left-wing political tone of a small percentage of its productions. A total of 81 out of 830 major titles were criticized for their content by members of Congress in public statements, committee hearings, on the floor of the Senate or House, or in testimony before Congressional committees. Of those, only 29 were original productions of the FTP. The Negro Theater Unit productions that garnered political scorn were The Case Of Philip Lawrence, which depicted a portrait of life in Harlem, Did Adam Sin, which was a review of black folklore with music and Haiti, a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolt. 

The Negro Theatre Unit was part of the FTP. With units set up all over the United States, the project provided employment and apprenticeships to black playwrights, directors, actors and technicians. It offered a sorely needed source of employment to the black community under the weight of the Great Depression during its life from 1935 – 1939, the same as the FTP did to the talents of the white community with a similar skill set. The FTP inspired the founding of the American Negro Theater (1940 – 1949). 

When asked why it is important for black and white actors to perform together today, a touchy subject to speak of racial relations in today’s political atmosphere, Geer gave a strong answer.

“What a sad question! That it should even be asked!,” said Geer. “That we as a country haven’t honored all races and genders in every form in all roles on stage. I guess when this question isn’t asked anymore or investigated, we will have accomplished the natural way of being as a human race. Theatricum has always worked toward spreading and mixing the rich compost of ideas and people in life.”

Curious to know if Haiti was the first time black and white actors had performed on stage together, this journalist asked the expert.

“Haiti represented the Negro section of the Federal Theatre,” said Geer. 

The talent pulled together for this modern performance of Haiti was fantastic. The portrayal of the characters was emotional, engaging, at times funny, others tragic and still others the actors compelled you to despise them for the truly despicable behavior their character engaged in with the other female and black characters on stage. In particular, Jeff Wiesen, who portrayed the character Colonel Boucher, gave such a compelling performance he causes the audience to despise his character! Colonel Boucher is nothing but an ass of his time, representing the discriminatory behavior men of the historical past had toward women and blacks. He’s a symbol of Colonialism. Bravo Mr. Wiesen!

Wiesen’s character interacts on such an emotional and personal level with Max Lawrence’s character, General Christophe. Lawrence’s character, who is Haitian, is often on an equal level or gains the upper hand to Wiesen’s white Colonial character, even to the extent of calling him Colonel Mouche at one point. There was a time in the play where Christophe and the character Toussaint L’ouverture come under a flag of truce to Colonel Boucher. There is skullduggery about though. 

“I believe that Christophe is written to have a natural disdain for any authority that threatens the dignity he inherently carries as a man,” said Lawrence. “There seems to be a constant chess match taking place in the mind of Christophe that points to his desire to have the ‘upper hand’ whenever it is strategically possible. It is his identity as a soldier, and it is a strong quality in a time of war. This is certainly true when he compares approach beneath a flag of truce to Col. Boucher’s approach. Christophe and Toussaint came unarmed, while the French came with threats of violence. He even tries to gain a mental edge by reducing his foe Col. Boucher, which means Butcher in French, to Col. Mouche, which means fly. This sort of confrontation is part of Christophe’s nature. He also has run-ins with his superior officer Toussaint l’Ouverture, when debating to attack on the beach versus fall back and defend from the hills, and his comrade Jaqueline, when they argue about her job in remaining behind among the French.”

Come prepared to this play for some violence, actual violence. There is sword play that is very entertaining. The audience can thank Dane Oliver for the stunning choreography of the sword fighting. If this were film, there would be cuts to explain how a sword gets from place to place. This is live theater. There is no camera trickery here. This is all talent when that sword flies. There is also physical violence from actor to actor, typical of the time in which the play takes place. It made the mind numb. 

When asked about the level of violence toward blacks and women in this play, and if today’s plays were watered down on this subject, Lawrence said, “I think we are slowly but surely finding ways, both as a society and as an artistic community, to value the voices of people and groups that have historically been unheard, underutilized, and misrepresented. There is no question that we still have much more progress to make to represent the experiences of blacks and women. We arguably have even further to go when it comes to hearing from other marginalized communities on stage — Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, LGTB, and more — and telling their stories. This opens the door to discussions that will hopefully lead to deeper understandings of both our common humanity, and the specific contributions that we have made to history.”

Lawrence’s performance was quite compelling that afterward it was an exercise to wonder how her prepared for the role, and how Geer helped talent prepare for their performance.

“A Director is done once the play has performance,” said Geer. “The stage manager keeps the form and sets things right if it gets lopsided. Actors grow in the story each time they perform it. They prepare themselves. They are professionals. Voice, physical, a role stays in the brain from the birth of the show until it ends. The interns and apprentices through classes and working with our company learn the way.”

Lawrence tells us of his method of preparing for and the background on which he had to prepare for the role.

“The time I had to prepare for this role was very limited due to some of the other commitments surrounding my life, so economy was the key,” said Lawrence. “My approach to Christophe was simple and Socratic, asking myself lots of questions and then building up this character around the answers. Many of those questions are the ones that actors typically ask that are rooted first within the text of the play: What is it that Christophe wants, and what lengths does he go to to get it? What things are said about him, either by himself or other characters? Which of those things are true? What are the relationship arcs that Christophe experiences during each scene? How is his relationship with Odette different from his relationship with Toussaint? Boucher vs. Jaqueline? How does each relationship evolve? Once I had an idea of who he was as a character, I did research on the historical figure to add another layer of truths to him: theories about his upbringing; encounters with French people; experiences that would have contributed to his stance on the Revolution. Once I had an idea of who ‘my Christophe’ was, my job became to play with him and to tweak and adjust him to serve the purposes of the story that Ellen wanted to tell with him — always the most fun part for me!”

Mr. Lawrence bravo! Bravo! What a fabulous performance! It will be intriguing to see how you do it. How will you make this character grow from the opening performance to the last. You left it all on the stage the first night! Excellent! 

The gem of the story and the performance was the character Jaqueline, performed by Earnestine Phillips. Ms. Phillips, bravo! Bravo! Another performance well done! Jaqueline is a character in a conundrum. She at once wants one thing and also another. 

When asked if she could relate to her character, her performance said everything that she could, Phillips said, “Yes, I had no problems relating to Jaqueline. She wants two things. Freedom from slavery, and to see her daughter again and make sure she is happy, healthy, safe, loved, prosperous, has a bright future, what any mother would want.”

Napoleon Bonaparte’s plan for world domination required a foothold in the Americas. So he dispatched his French troops to colonize Haiti.  The Creols, having recently won their freedom form British rule, wanted their own nation and to belong to themselves. Haiti was the first free black nation state. They were the first country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery completely. The play historically recounts the actual uprising of Toussaint L’ouverture, and has successor Henri Christophe, against the invading army of Bonaparte. 

But it was the story of miscegenation, or a mixture of races, that aroused controversy. The actors are both black and white, and one actress in particular is of both black and white descent. In Haiti, a woman who is of both black and white ancestry is in Bonaparte’s retinue. This is historical. White slave owners often had sex with their black slaves and had offspring from the encounter. This resulted in miscegenation. It is a simple fact, but one people of that time chose to sweep under the rug of history. Hence the play became controversial. Black and white actors on the same stage was unacceptable, and an actress of both white and black ancestry was not palpitable to the New York critics or audiences. The relationships between a family and daughter of different races, however deftly handled, simply did not blow over well. It became a sticking point that the FTP was radical and needed to end.

Phillips’ character has a raw and emotional ending. It leaves the audience angry, upset at the colonizers and history in general. When asked how she felt about her character’s ending, Phillips said, “My Character had accomplished everything she wanted. Haiti winning the war against France, and seeing her daughter again after more than two decades.”

The character Odette is the character Jaqueline’s daughter. Odette is played by the dazzling Tiffany Coty. Again bravo! Bravo! Ms. Coty! The subject matter with which Coty had to handle in today’s atmosphere was explosive, and so was her performance! She portrayed the symbolism of her character with grace, and the subtext of our times with poise. Coty and Phillips made and excellent duo! 

“I feel that the relationship between Jaqueline and Odette symbolizes the power of a mother’s love for her child and visa versa,” said Phillips. “Tiffany and I had discussions about those feelings, plus we talked about Odette — unbeknownst to her — had grown up living as a white person just as her father, knowingly, had lived his life as a white person, and with that came wealth and privilege.”

When asked how she prepared for her historical role of Jaqueline, Phillips said, “I researched Haitian history, but bottom line, slavery is slavery whether it’s in the United States, or it’s on the Island of Haiti. It’s Europeans getting filthy rich on the backs of Africans. What else is new? No preparation necessary.”

The FTP also created Living Newspapers, themed plays about current events literally clipped from the day’s newspapers, some of which were directed by Orson Welles. These were researchers turned playwright. These plays were often hot-button topics, like Triple-A Plowed Under, about an attack on the US Supreme Court for killing an aid agency for farmers and an account of the Agricultural Administration Act that paid farmers to ruin their own crops. Another was Arthur Arent’s 1937 play on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), titled Power, which chronicled the history of electricity from its discovery to the companies that controlled it to the TVA’s legal disputes. Critics called Power a propagandist play. 

Some of the first complaints of the Living Newspaper project came in 1936 over the planned production of Ethiopia, the project’s very first production. This play was about the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy and its dictator Benito Mussolini. Ethiopia was shut down when it was ruled the FTP could not depict current heads of state. Probably the most famous FTP production event was when The Cradle Will Rock was canceled on the eve to its debut. This was against a backdrop of suspicion the FTP had been infiltrated by Communists. 

“It was feared the pro-union musical would fuel the workers’ strikes and other acts of civil unrest prevalent at the time. Arriving at the theatre on the day of the intended debut, cast and crew were barred from entering by government soldiers,” according to records for there Library of Congress. “Director Orson Welles, intent on presenting the show, secured another theatre and led the company and the waiting audience to it. Since the company’s unions prohibited them from appearing on stage in this new theatre, the actors and musicians performed from seats in the audience, with the composer providing a piano accompaniment from the stage.”

Topanga Journal
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