“The Last Tiger in Haiti,” a world premiere co-production between Berkeley Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse, was written by a talented newcomer, Jeff Augustin, who was born in Miami of Haitian parentage. He received his MFA in theater from UC San Diego just two years ago and has already landed many awards and artist residencies around the country. The production is directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, who is also is a graduate of UC San Diego’s MFA theater program. Please keep their newcomer status in mind, when you see the impactful, yet imperfect “The Last Tiger in Haiti.”
The majority of the drama (an over-long first act) is set in a dismal hut/tent in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2008 and focuses on five bedraggled children who are “restaveks” — the Haitian term for children whose poverty-stricken parents have abandoned them to live with better-off families, for whom the children must function as near slaves until they reach the age of 18. They live in heartbreaking conditions, often go hungry, are forbidden to go to school and frequently suffer physical and mental abuse.
Our hearts immediately go out to the youngest “restavek,” Rose, an innocent 11 year-old girl (fine performance by Britany Bellizeare) who plays with her only possession, a black cloth doll that her mother had given her. She is safeguarded by Max, who is about to reach 18 and freedom (powerful performance by Andy Lucien). Max protects Rose from a tormenting Joseph (Reggie D. White) and his sidekick, Emmanuel (Clinton Roane). Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) is a 17-year old young woman whose bravado covers her fear. All the children are played by experienced, skilled actors who, unfortunately, must struggle through the delivery of their lines mimicking a sort of French/Haitian accent.
They are not a family, the children keep reminding each other. Yet, they share the terror, exploitation, hunger and helplessness of the restavek experience. On the last night of the Haitian celebration of “kanaval,” which is the eve of Max’s 18th birthday, the children gather and tell each other traditional Haitian folktales that they remember hearing from their parents.
The stories feature surreal themes of religion, of good triumphing over evil and of heroic acts of courage. The Haitian tradition is that a storyteller calls “krik” if she or he has a tale to tell. The listeners then respond with “krak,” if they choose to hear the legend. Laurie captivates the audience with a story in song, “The Orange Tree” (original music and lyrics by Jay Adana). But as we begin to fidget and wonder whether all these tales are furthering a plot, there is a dramatic, bloody and largely unexplained end to the first act.
In Act Two, the set turns from poverty to posh — the lavish oceanfront condo in Miami Beach of a now grown-up, elegant Rose. The previous evening, Rose and Max met for the first time in 16 years while Rose was signing copies of her new hot memoir about her days as a Haitian “restavek.” Max is visibly uncomfortable with Rose, although she is delighted to see him. But, as Max dissects her memoir, there is a dramatic plot twist and we begin to understand that what we saw in Act One may be another folktale, an even more heinous form of abuse and betrayal.
The backstage creative team does a first-class job in bringing “The Last Tiger in Haiti” to life. Takeshi Kata’s scenic design captures Haitian poverty and Miami Beach minimalist style. Dede Ayite’s costumes in the first act help to bring alive the “kanaval” and the children’s poverty, while Rose’s second act garb is creative and clever. Nicholas Drashner’s sound design aids in the dark atmosphere of Act One with Haitian Voodoo music and the drunken master’s off-stage voice. The sound of the atmospheric ocean waves are a convincing touch in Act Two.
There is a lot that is right about “The Last Tiger in Haiti” but perhaps a bit more reworking might be useful. The play’s twist ending is so sudden and surprising that it may need some additional foreshadowing for it to make sense to the audience. And Augustin seems to be trying to stuff too many themes into 90 minutes: the terrible tortured lives of Haitian “restavek” children and the adults they become, the tradition of Haitian stories, the lives of Haitian immigrants in the U.S. and the usurpation and distortion of a life story for personal gain. Nevertheless, playwright Jeff Augustin has written a powerful portrayal of Haitian life that audiences won’t soon forget.
© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved
This review originally appeared on Berkeleyside.com