HAITI Theater Review
It’s funny how pure chance can affect things. I usually make it a point to attend the premieres of every play at my favorite theatre, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. Thus I greatly looked forward to driving out to the splendid amphitheater in Topanga Canyon on July 26 for the opening night of the first revival of the 1938 revolutionary play Haiti, ADrama of the Black Napoleon. But it was not to be - the road from Pacific Coast Highway up from Malibu to Topanga was closed, alas.
The following Saturday my disappointment turned into a piece of colossal luck, as I attended the next performance in the repertory season of Haiti - as did that courageous Congresswoman Maxine Waters, in order to receive The Will Geer Humanitarian Award. Before the show began, Congresswoman Waters joined the costumed actors onstage to be presented with the award by WGTB Artistic Director Ellen Geer to an ovation from the audience and cast.
Holding the handmade plaque actress Earnestine Phillips exuberantly declared: “We support you, we are behind you 1 million percent! And we will be right there fighting with you!” as the crowd roared its approval. Accepting the Humanitarian Award, the Congresswoman showed it to the crowd, expressed her delight and surprise at being so honored and spoke about “one of the most thrilling, defining moments of my life” - which was rescuing deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from being exiled at the Central African Republic.
Ms. Waters went on to say: “Of course, I believe in liberation theology… I love the spirit of Haiti. I think somehow, it is because of my appreciation for the struggle and fight of that little country that I know when we fight we can win. And we should fight - and we’re resisting now!” asserted the outspoken Congresswoman, whose public defiance against the Trump regime has garnered her death threats.
Congresswoman Waters may urge resisters to confront members of the Trump junta at restaurants and so on but she was met with nothing but accolades and affection at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
Congresswoman Waters may urge resisters to confront members of the Trump junta at restaurants and so on but she was met with nothing but accolades and affection at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, which like the annual Humanitarian Award was named after the blacklisted actor who co-starred in one of the best American progressive pictures ever, 1954’s pro-strike, pro-Hispanic Salt of the Earth, and then made a screen comeback on the beloved The Waltons TV series in the 1970s. Previous recipients of the Will Geer Humanitarian Award included: Oscar-winning cinematographer/ director Haskell Wexler; TV writer Earl Hamner Jr.; and Paul Robeson (posthumously received by Ben Guillory of the Robey Theatre). The plaques are handmade by Megan Geer-Alsop (see here).
The Congresswoman was accompanied to WGTB by her husband, ex-NFL linebacker Sidney Williams, who served as Ambassador to the Bahamas, appointed by Bill Clinton, and by staffers and a security detail. Aristotle wrote about the unity of action, time and place in drama and rarely has anything been more organic than Maxine Waters’ being honored at a play about an island she is so intimately linked to - and also because she is one of the boldest public critics taking the Trump coup to task. In particular, the Trumpsters are irked that she is demanding that they actually be held accountable for their actions and policies.
The shithead-in-chief may call Haiti a “shithole country” but what he and other racists truly dread about the Caribbean nation is its radical Black nationalist heritage that shook off the yoke of French colonialism. Haiti deals with Napoleon’s effort to invade the isle formerly known as Saint-Domingue and to re-enslave the so-called “Black Jacobins.” William DuBois’ (not to be confused with NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois) two-acter combines the sweep of an epic revolutionary mass drama based on fact with a private story about family and individuals swept up in the cauldron of history. In doing so the white playwright, novelist and NY Times journalist showed once again that the personal is political.
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In doing so, DuBois utilized melodrama and mistaken or hidden identity tropes that date back to the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. For me, the drama worked best when it focused on the guerrilla war waged by General Christophe (Max Lawrence - who excelled last summer as the tragic Stakhanovite stallion Boxer in another WGTB play about revolution, 2017’s Animal Farm - steps into the same boots previously worn by Rex Ingram, and then Canada Lee, in Harlem and then on Broadway in 1938) against the Napoleonic invaders, led by the debauched General Leclerc (Mark Lewis), Colonel Roche (Tavis L. Baker) and Colonel Boucher (Jeff Wiesen). The spectacle, directed by Ellen Geer, features great onstage swordplay and derring-do, and makes clever use of the Topanga Canyon environs, with “campfires” and the like signifying the guerrillas’ bases.
As what film historian Donald Bogle called a “tragic mulatto” character, the mixed race Odette (Tiffany Coty) has mixed motives and a confused identity. The wife of a French officer, who will she side with? The European interlopers or the Islanders? Once again, Earnestine Phillips has some delicious fun turning stage stereotypes on their heads, as Jacqueline (in DuBois’ original text the character is a male named Jacques - but that’s the Theatricum for you, as ever, with its nontraditional, caricature-busting casting). Is Jacqueline just a handkerchief head Mammy-like servant - or a spy and more for the Haitian uprising? Last summer, Phillips had similar sly pleasure upending preconceived trite notions in WGTB’s production of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind.
Haiti also deals with the double dealing French militarists’ abduction of the great Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture (Roderick Jean-Charles). The European imperialists deported and exiled him to the prison, Fort or Château de Joux, which by chance I have actually seen. This mountainous prison is just across the border from Switzerland, and it’s hard to imagine somebody from the tropics being imprisoned at a place that could be so cold, especially during wintertime, and this is where one of the greatest heroes of liberation movements around the world ended his days.
DuBois’ play was a production of the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, which put thousands of actors, directors, playwrights, stagehands, etc., to work during the Great Depression. It was an arm of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies spearheaded by the Works Progress Administration. But more than just a jobs program, what was probably the closest thing this nation has ever had to a “national theater” created some great plays, including works by Orson Welles, John Houseman, Marc Blitzstein and others. According to academic Shannon Rose Riley, more than 74,000 theatergoers saw Haiti at the Lafayette Theatre, before it moved from Harlem to the Great White Way (no pun intended).
It is extremely laudable than on the 80th anniversary of this revolutionary play, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is reviving this classic of resistance for the first time since 1938. And how great that one of the champions of the modern day resistance, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, was honored at a staging DuBois’ stirring drama about what the haughty Frenchwoman Pauline Bonaparte (a snide, coquettish Lea Madda), Napoleon’s sister, sneered at as those “slaves in epaulettes.” Let’s hope that the modern day would-be Napoleon meets his Waterloo soon and ends up like the overthrown Frenchmen in Haiti at the hands of 21st century slaves-no-more, and as soon as possible. Viva la resistance and viva Haiti!
Haiti is playing in repertory through Sept. 30 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series”(https://www.gofundme.com/marx-200-the-marxist-movie-serie). The third edition of“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ . The docu-play Rampell wrote commemorating Dr. King will be presented at the end of the Left Coast Forum (see: https://www.gofundme.com/dr-king-commemoration).