At La Jolla Playhouse, ‘Last Tiger in Haiti’ Still Finding Its Footing

Clockwise from left: Reggie D. White, Clinton Roane, Andy Lucien, Brittany Bellizeare and Jasmine St. Clair in La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of "The Last Tiger in Haiti." (Jim Carmody)
Clockwise from left: Reggie D. White, Clinton Roane, Andy Lucien, Brittany Bellizeare and Jasmine St. Clair in La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of “The Last Tiger in Haiti.” (Jim Carmody)

“The Last Tiger in Haiti,” a new play by Jeff Augustin that’s receiving its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, begins in a tent shack in Port-au-Prince that is the home for a group of unfortunate youngsters who for one reason or another were discarded by their families.

The terms for these Haitian children is “restaveks” (from the French rester avec, “to stay with”), though these are not what we would think of as foster kids. They are more or less slaves, working until they turn 18 to pay off the debt they owe whoever has agreed to house them  — often in the most brutal conditions imaginable, with abuse rampant and opportunities for education minimal at best.

A program note reminds us that “even before the devastating 2010 earthquake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” The ramifications of this poverty are everywhere apparent in the play’s first half, set in 2008 in a ramshackle hut with scattered bedding on the ground and no modern conveniences whatsoever.

The ages of the five characters range from 18 to 11. Max (Andy Lucien), the eldest and most responsible, is about to earn his freedom. Rose (Brittany Bellizeare), the youngest and most childlike, doesn’t want to see him leave. Max is her protector, an older brother figure in an environment that doesn’t promote familial closeness.

Joseph (Reggie D. White), who’s a year away from earning his freedom, is the most mischievous of the bunch. He steals Rose’s doll and torments her with frightening tales of her restavek future — cleaning toilets, mopping up other people’s slop and eventually satisfying adult sexual needs.

Emmanuel (Clinton Roane) is Joseph’s younger sidekick who has stolen a bottle of rum from the master during this final night of carnival celebration. The usual routine has been so relaxed that Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) has yet to return to the tent, but she comes back just in time for a little rum and storytelling.

Collectively sharing stories is how these characters cope with their predicament. The act has been ritualized — when one says, “Krik?” another must answer “krak” for the narrative to properly commence.

Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat wrote a story collection called “Krik? Krak!” Augustin acknowledges in an interview in the program the influence of her work. In particular, he was drawn to a question Danticat has wrestled with (sometimes controversially) about the ownership of Haitian tales.

This notion of storytelling as an agreement between teller and listener — krik must get the green-light from krak — becomes a crucial point in the play’s second act, set in the “near future” in a glamorous waterfront condo in Miami Beach. Rose, now a confident, well-dressed grown-up, has published a memoir of her travails as a restavek, but the veracity of her account is challenged by Max, whose life has taken a very different turn.

The production, a collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, who like Augustin is a graduate of UC San Diego’s MFA program in theater. It’s nice to see La Jolla Playhouse nurturing these rising talents, though this premiere of “The Last Tiger in Haiti” still seems at the workshop-level phase — promising but blurry.

Augustin trusts that the audience will be able to piece together the play’s context from the interactions of his characters. The play is free of lumpy exposition, but the drama has difficulty coming into focus.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: L.A. Times – Charles McNulty, Theater Critic