By Bill Hirschman
There’s a genre of theater dubbed Important. The world premiere of Create Dangerously at Miami New Drama certainly qualifies.
With rousing music, dynamic dance, trenchant humor, moving drama and insightful storytelling, it simultaneously reaffirms the glory and agony of Haiti’s tumultuous culture that should resound with Haitian-American immigrants, while passionately educating the rest of the audience to the joyful and painful realities most of us have just read about in superb but once-removed news accounts.
This non-linear and imaginative approach is written and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz but drawn from the acclaimed 2010 book Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by the much honored Edwidge Danticat.
Blain-Cruz has enlisted a sextet of inspired actors to speak both as Blain-Cruz, the scene-setter, and as Danticat. Throughout, the company essentially recites Danticat’s words that would appear unbroken on a piece of paper. But Blain-Cruz divides them among the company a sentence or two at a time in a running commentary that is often in motion across the stage.
With that staging, with the brilliance of Danticat’s language and insights, specific evocative sets lights and costumes, and with the often joyful passion of the cast, the last thing this seems like is a recitation of essays.
Blain-Cruz’s character enthusiastically tells the audience: “This isn’t really a play!! It’s an amalgamation of celebration and memory and reflection. Because we’re living in a crazy world right now. Right? And for Haiti in particular – Haiti is suffering, there are people suffering. And so this is a chance for some perspective – a chance to live inside some stories from Edwidge’s life, to hear about some Haitians who have inspired her, and to give some love to those who have come before, those that are here now, and those that are yet to come.”
It resembles friends standing around together to tell stories. To set the context, one actress plays Blain-Cruz herself on and off to also give the story some independent observation. But everyone else takes turns in the same scenes playing characters in the stories and speaking for Danticat as her narrative unreels dramatized incidents.
Among the stories: tracking Danticat when she and family members returned to Haiti, climbed mountainous backcountry and visited with the ancient great-grandmother Tante Ilyana still living a rural life “without electricity, telephones, medical doctors, or morgues.”
Another section early in the evening depicts live actors miming the 1964 public execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, who left the safety of New York to lead armed revolt against “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Scenes are often interrupted through the evening with sounds of gunfire and flashes of light.
Both stories, indeed underlying the entire evening, are the sense of Haitian immigrants and second-generation Haitian-Americans trying to reconnect with their culture and their history. To wit, Edwicat says the trip into the mountains was “to see just how far we have trekked in less than two generations
One of the most fascinating scenes sets two figures side by side. Legendary Haitian painter Hector Hippolyte’s work is played on the stage’s back wall in animated evolving depictions. Across the stage is the famed American-born Neo-Expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat who acknowledges his Haitian ethnicity but whose work has virtually no relation to that culture and no desire to visit.
Basquiat says, “I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment. But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look for it, it exists. It’s over there, in Africa. That doesn’t mean that I have to go live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live.”
The audience opening night was enraptured and when the actors called out to the assemblage in varied Creole accents, dozens of voices answered back.
The cast includes an array of New York actors and others you may have seen locally: Brittany Bellizeare, Thiana Berrick, Edson Jean, Andrea Patterson, Paul Pryce, understudy Sydney Presendieu and Charlene Francois, who appears as Ilyana, but as a dancer and movement coordinator infuses the evening with an overlay of physical undulating eloquence.
The works fits perfectly with Miami New Drama’s mission, specializing in new work and focusing heavily on the multi-culturalism of Miami-Dade County. Artistic Director Michel Hausmann quipped to the audience opening night something along the lines that Miami has the largest assemblage of Haitians in America, followed by New York City. Except, he said, New York City is a melting pot, and we are not.”
So the Blain-Cruz character tells us, “I read this book years ago when I was feeling a bit of fear, fear of losing my freedoms, fear of losing connection to my roots in Haiti, fear of not knowing how to create when the world feltlike it might end – and her essays gave me both some perspective and courage —And so when the chance came to make something for Miami, a city filled with so many immigrants -it felt only natural…to adapt this book.”
Taking it a deeper step, the multiple Danticat characters say about the country’s censorship and repression, “There were many recurrences of this story throughout the country, book and theater clubs secretly cherishing some potentially subversive piece of literature, families burying if not burning their entire libraries, books that might seem innocent but could easily betray them. Strings of words that, uttered, written, or read, could cause a person’s death…. Reading, like writing, under these conditions is disobedience to a directive in which the reader already knows the possible consequences but does it anyway. How does that reader find the courage to open that book? After an arrest, an execution? Of course, they may find it in the power of the hushed chorus of other readers, but they can also find it in the writer’s courage in having stepped forward, in having written, or rewritten, in the first place.”
The physical environment is effectively evocative down to the lip of the stage lined by candles next to photos of, we assume, the dead. It is interesting that Blain-Cruz, a former Miamian, could not find a single designer of costumes or sets or lighting or projections or sound living in the state of Florida.
Throughout, this is a celebratory evening in which pride radiates off the stage and into the audience.
Note on audience thoughtlessness: Eight to ten people, usually not sitting on the aisle, got up during the intermissionless play, slipped clumsily through the aisles and went out to the lobby even though it was made clear this was a 90-minute play before returning when they felt like it.
Create Dangerously from Miami New Drama plays through May 28; at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; Running time 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission; performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; tickets $46.50 to $76.50. Call 305-674-1040 or visit miaminewdrama.org
To read a feature preview by Christine Dolen of artburstmiami.com, click here.