Originally part of the Federal Theatre Project, a WPA program instituted during the Depression years, HAITI was first performed at New York’s Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1938. Playwright William DuBois tells the story of the same uprising that Orson Welles used as a basis for his voodoo scene in “Macbeth.” Based on the actual uprising of Toussaint L’Ouverture and his successor, Henri Christopher, when Napoleon’s army invaded the island country, playwright DuBois liberally sprinkles melodrama, fact, and fiction into the tale of a battle for continued independence, heroic (and not so heroic) principals, and miscegenation.
Controversy surrounded the 1930’s production of HAITI, which required African-American and Caucasian actors to share the same stage in Harlem while exploring issues of black/white relationships, mixed race offspring, females as second-class citizens, and domestic abuse. In fact, nearly all the topics woven into DeBois’ tapestry of race relations pretty much occupied an “under the carpet” status at that time. Perhaps with this in mind, DeBois kept the action rolling and the swords clashing.
HAITI tells the tale of a black former slave Jaqueline (Earnestine Phillips), who had a steamy affair years ago with the scion of wealthy plantation owners. When her lover was forced to flee for his life, he took their daughter Odette (Tiffany Coty) with him to Paris and left Jaqueline behind to remain in the former French colony which became the Mecca for freed slaves. Years pass; and it is now 1804. Jaqueline longs to see her child, now grown to an adult who “passes for white” in Paris and has married the elegant, very white Colonel Boucher (Jeff Wiesen). Then Napoleon decides that the former French colony of Haiti should again become his property – going so far as to send his sister Pauline (Lea Madda) to the front lines with her military husband. After all, every country needs a queen. And so war seems imminent.
The two sides line up, with Toussaint L’Ouverture (Rodrick Jean-Charles) and General Christophe (Max Lawrence) leading the Haitian troops and General LeClerc (Mark Lewis) and Colonel Roche (Tavis L. Baker) drawing up the French battle strategies. And who should happen to be in the French contingent but an ambitious and abusive Colonel Boucher and his wife Odette. Along with the apple of Odette’s eye, the brave and protective Captain Duval (Dane Oliver). Under the guise of a cowed servant, spy Jaqueline observes the French plans being formulated which will result into freed slaves again becoming French property. And she also has the opportunity to witness her daughter’s elegant white life as the spouse of an influential military man.
The audience will have a rollicking time watching the drama unfold with some unexpected chortles. As always, director Ellen Geer knows just where to “dot the i’s” to make this an entertaining and illuminating evening. The mixed race cast seems to be having the time of their lives portraying this historical moment in time. Kudos to the nimble, acrobatic denizens of the piece, with special congrats to fight choreographer Dane Oliver as he artfully snatches a sword flying end on end through the air. These split seconds often elicited a cheer from the mesmerized audience. HAITI lets us glimpse what heroism strives to be, even if it occasionally misses the mark. Audiences of all ages should enjoy DeBois’ enthusiastic efforts.
HAITI runs through September 29, 2018, with performances at 8 p.m. on 7/28, 8/4, 8/11, 8/19, and 9/8 and at 4 p.m. on 8/26, 9/2, 9/16, 9/22, and 9/29. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. Tickets range from $25 to $38.50 (seniors, students, military veterans, teachers, AEA members $15 to $25). For information and reservations, call 310-455-3723 or go online.