By Bill Hirschman
Sometimes theater comes to you, washes over you without you having to invest much of yourself, say, something like Wicked.
Sometimes you have to come to it, invest not just attention, but work to get in tune with the artists’ unique vibe, vision and voice.
But the worthy reward, as with New City Players’ Cry Old Kingdom, is discovering a new world or, at a minimum, a new way of looking at one you know well.
Jeff Augustin’s incisive tragedy provides an embarrassingly rare look for Florida mainstream theater into Haiti’s past, considering that this state is home to one of the largest concentrations of Haitian immigrants in the country. As Producing Artistic Director Tim Davis told a very diverse opening night audience, one of the company’s goals is to tell “stories that reflect our community.”
With passion – repressed then explosive, the play depicts with unapologetic clarity how varied people – from intellectuals to self-described peasants – struggled to deal with the horrifying despotism of Papa Doc Duvalier in 1964. But throughout, the playwright has ordinary people smoothly slip into soul-filled speeches that glow with near poetry.
In an isolated coastal town, the murderously repressive Duvalier regime galvanizes its citizenry into making choices, such as enlisting in violent revolution or, alternatively, escaping to a dream of America. Or like the tragedy-chastened central character, Edwin, struggling to simply hide out physically and morally from the responsibility of making a determinative choice.
Edwin is a famed painter hiding out here from a revolutionary past in Port Au Prince by taking advantage of the popular misconception that he is dead. He continues to create — but never finishes — evocative paintings with no distinct faces. His long-suffering wife Judith, once a dancer in the big city, is reduced to selling goods in the town square, pretending he is dead.
While seeking inspiration on the beach, Edwin discovers 20-ish Henri Marx seeking driftwood, a mysterious figure from a small town, exuding a heightened suspicion of strangers. After a distinctly uncomfortable period, the two find a bond in that they are from the same hometown. The young man agrees to pose for Edwin while he builds a boat in the safety of Edwin’s hidden studio. Something about his efforts and perhaps his sensuality stimulate something obsessively in Edwin.
Despite the possibility of betrayal and the roaming death squads, Judith is invigorated by radio reports that an uprising is imminent in the area, and she wants the couple to join in. Edwin wants no part of his past.
JUDITH: Before Duvalier, you used to paint on walls, cars, trees, even pigs protesting against mulatto elitism.
EDWIN: What did all the revolution get us? Duvalier. A man worse than all the others.
As the next few days pass, various forces collide including Henri’s recollection of as truly horrifying a nightmarish memory as you will hear described in local theater this season. Judith, frustrated that Edwin hasn’t been physically or emotionally close in some time, feels inexorably drawn to a disastrous protest.
The aftermath poses Edwin with a terrible inescapable choice that will affect the future of all three.
Director Marlo Vashti Rodriguez deftly amplifies and intensifies Augustin’s subtle yet emotional script, especially finding ways to deliver the playwright’s complex interlocking themes. Much of the time her production moves smoothly and solidly through the special vibe that Augustin created although the second and third to last climatic scenes move so quickly that they seem a bit too rushed for the crucial events to sink in.
Occasionally, some of the performances do slip into a presentational feel and don’t land as smoothly as Augustin’s musical lilt during the rest of the evening. Over and over there was a line here and there again and again that didn’t quite sound natural coming from these characters’ mouths, almost like something you’d hear in a fledgling community theater. But, inarguably, there is a distinct promise of talent and skill here that with each night’s performance, the evening will meld into a lyrical whole.
Indeed, the opening night performances were compelling, especially Denzel McCausland who creates with Rodriguez an Edwin whose genial, pleasant but measured dialogue seems as if Edwin has made peace with his retreat from life, but actually hides a stifled guilt and a growing anxiety as he is drawn further into facing what he is trying to avoid. McCausland has become a welcome addition to the local theater corps, memorable from his partner “M” in New City Players’ Lungs (opposite Rodriguez) and Lincoln in Main Street Players’ Topdog/Underdog.
Odlenika Joseph makes her professional acting debut as Judith. While you catch her acting a good deal, she shines when Judith describes the desire to fight back against the injustice or when she expresses her frustration at her husband’s behavioral change since they went into hiding.
TJ Pursley convincingly delivers a vibrant, defiant and haunted young man powered by dreams of a better life.
The real strength here is Augustin’s script, which takes politics, art, hope, love, sex, patriotism, dreams and a half dozen other elements, then convincingly pits them against each other – even as they echo each other.
There are so many speeches worth quoting that encapsulate both the specific plight of Haiti and generally of people in similar straits.
Especially pertinent, Augustin articulates through Henri the desire of so many to risk their lives crossing to Florida for what many of us take for granted as an ordinary life, something that echoes deafeningly today as so many Haitians are journeying in makeshift boats to Key West’s shores.
EDWIN: So you’re going to America to live a dream.
HENRI MARX: No, I’m going there to live. It’s not possible to do that here anymore… There, I’ll be able to get a job and buy a home. Come in and out of my home whenever I wish. In Miami, people walk around at all times of the night
HENRI MARX: It’s the opportunity to start new, to create a life. To be in a place, a land where you have no history, so you can’t feel ashamed or pulled down into its darkness. In America you can be poor and if you educate yourself and work hard, you have the opportunity to create a life that suits you.
EDWIN: It won’t be that easy.
HENRI MARX: I don’t think it will be, but it’s worth giving it a try. Look where you are. You can’t tell me that your art, inspiration is why you don’t leave.
EDWIN: In America opportunity is limitless. And that can be dangerous. Here, with fewer options, you know between the good and bad.
HENRI MARX: There is no such thing as too much opportunity. In America you can take what you need and leave what you don’t.
The design team does a decent job with limited resources such as Desiraé Gairala
(Merritt)’s lighting and Edverson Raymonvil’s costumes.
New City Players’ Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Price (also assistant director and production manager for this show) saw the play’s bow at the 2013 Humana Festival of New American Plays, and recommended what apparently has not been produced very often since.
New City Players only does a handful of full-stage productions a year, but it remains deeply invested in the community with events connected to their productions. Over the next six weeks, it will host four events including an April 25 community discussion, a May 5 filmfest by Haitian filmmakers, a session May 11 of people telling their origin stories, and May 30 a lab about writing origin stories. Details are at the website newcityplayers.org.
Cry Old Kingdom is presented through April 30 by New City Players, performed at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Runs about 80 minutes. . Tickets $20-$35. Tickets can be purchased atwww.newcityplayers.org/season or by calling (954)-376-6114.
Parking is available in any space around the entire building, including behind it. Behind the building you may also park at the Poverello Live Well Center but please keep the 4 spaces nearest to their front door open – ignore the tow signs- they have agreed to allow parking there. There are also metered parking areas located across the street from the theater. Please be aware: The parking lot directly across the street from the front door of Island City Stage is off limits for parking and violators may be towed.