By Yuko Kurahashi
The La Jolla Playhouse, in partnership with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, presents Jeff Augustin’s The Last Tiger in Haiti, a play about “restavek” (child slavery in Haiti), directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, at the Mandell Weiss Forum through July 24, 2016. The playwright Augustin, of Haitian descent, chose to use the traditions of Haitian storytelling as a vehicle not only to expose child slavery but also question traditional and contemporary “story-telling” and its power.
Augustin depicts child slaves making up stories about their lives in a competitive way, shaping the stories in response to the comments of the listeners. In Haiti, the tradition is that a storyteller says, “krik” if one has a story to tell. Then the “listener” says “krak” if they are willing to listen. Using this set of call and response the stories in the play are comingled with folktales and religious traditions, while they also introduce the audience to the tragic reality of child slavery. Brody emphasizes the contrast and symbiosis between the first and second acts; Act I depicts the sheer poverty of the restaveks while Act II projects affluence in the United States. Yet, in both acts the focus is on manipulation and exploitation exercised by those who have power.
The first act opens in a tent shack in Port-au-Prince, in 2008, on the last day of Kanaval, the one day a year when the child slaves are free to celebrate. The characters are: Rose, an 11year-old Haitian girl (Britany Bellizeare); Max, an 18 year-old Haitian man (Andy Lucien); Joseph, a 17 year-old Haitian man (Reggie D. White); Emmanuel, a 15 year-old Haitian man (Clinton Roane); and Laurie, a 17-year old Haitian woman (Jasmine St. Clair). As the play opens the character of Rose is talking to her doll, which becomes the key element in Act II to reveal the reality of violence and abuses.
Then Max returns from Kanaval and digs up a jar in front of the shack to find it empty. As Joseph, Emmanuel and then Laurie arrive, their everyday fear about the master returns. To cope with their fears, the children begin telling stories to each other. The first act comes to a bloody but surreal conclusion when the oldest, Max, tells the story of the last tiger in Haiti and seems to take the others away to freedom.
Act II is set in Rose’s luxurious condo, which she shares with her fiancé who is out of town, in Miami Beach. It is 16 years later and Rose, who is dressed elegantly, has just returned from a book-signing for the publication of her memoir about her experience as a child slave. At the event, she saw Max and invited him to her home. Rose tells him that she was adopted after the Haitian earthquake of 2010 by an American family and was educated in the United States. Max has also immigrated to the United States and now lives in Little Haiti in Miami, working as a gardener.
Rose seems delighted to have re-encountered Max while Max seems troubled. In the course of the second act the story created in the first act is revisited and the true horrors of child slavery are presented along with a tragic and continuing betrayal.
Andy Lucien as Max portrays through both vocal range and physical expressions, the turmoil his character undergoes. Brittany Bellizeare, as Rose, demonstrates a remarkable transformation from an 11 year old girl in a shack in Haiti to a woman living in luxury with equal aplomb. Clinton Roane’s Emmanuel well delineates a follower who is always on the edge of terror and lacking even a veneer of courage. Jasmine St. Clair’s Laurie is the spirited young woman who hides, underneath her cheerful girl surface, her fear and vulnerability. She is outstanding in telling her story/song “The Orange Tree” (original music and lyrics by Jay Adana). Reggie D. White’s Joseph is portrayed as charming with bravado but ultimately broken in utter despair under the control of his master. Although the performers’ acting is strong, often, during the performance, the audience finds it difficult to catch their lines; it could be corrected with less use of dialects/accents (much efforts were provided by dialect coach Chantal Jean-Pierre) and the use of wireless microphones.
Takeshi Kata’s scenic design in Act I is simple, dark, and suggestive with a back drop of tin and fabric for the wall of the shack. He keeps the rest of the stage dark to suggest the eerie and violent world that surrounds the child slaves all the time. Kata’s set for the second act captures the essence of a contemporary Miami condo with opaque windows which suggest a magnificent view of the ocean (lighted by Alexander V. Nichols). The condo is furnished with high-end minimalist furniture, further contrasting Act I and II.
The lighting designer Nichols also emphasizes the contrast between Act I and Act II. Act I uses warm light with orange and red tones, evoking the atmosphere lighted by candles and the tropical temperature of Haiti. Act II uses a bright cool, blue tone, suggesting the air-conditioned high rise. Nichols also uses the lighting to accentuate stories such as Joseph’s story about the Ghost Woman and her death which is intensified with bright orange light.
Dede Ayite’s costumes reflect the locales and situation. In Act I, the actors wear worn second hand clothes while they also exhibit ritual and celebratory elements of the Karnaval. Rose’s costume in Act II —a crisp white blouse and bright blue ankle length skirt—underscores her transformation, hinting at the “journey” she has taken from a girl in Port-au-Prince to a celebrity in Miami.
Sound designer Nicholas Drashner provides a background to the settings with subtle ambiences that include the waves of the ocean and the off-stage spooky, drunken voice of the master. At the top of each act Drashner uses a recording of Haitian Vodou music combined with low drones and spatialization effects. This sound effect creates a connection between the geographically and temporally different worlds of Act I and II.
The play is notable for being the work of two UC San Diego’s Theatre and Dace MFA program alumni, Brody and Augustin, who developed the play over two years at workshops in New York and at the La Jolla Playhouse’s own DNA New Work Series.
This world premiere performance of The Last Tiger in Haiti runs through July 24 at the La Jolla Playhouse Mandell Weiss Forum. This production will move to its co-producer Berkeley Repertory Theatre in October 2016.