Monday, October 24, 2016

The Long Road to Introspection

Placing a dramatic moment in its proper context is a crucial element in storytelling. Without that context, the dramatic intent might seem superfluous, confusing, or a waste of time. Take, for instance, two comedy numbers written by Kander and Ebb in 1965. The vehicle, Flora The Red Menace, marked the songwriting team's Broadway debut (as well as the Broadway debut of its star, Liza Minnelli).

The show's co-star, Bob Dishy, had been cast as Harry Toukarian (a young, idealistic Communist sympathizer and struggling fashion designer). Painfully insecure and suffering from a profound speech impediment, Harry could usually pull himself together to address a political rally but would completely fall apart when trying to communicate with a member of the opposite sex. In the following song, Harry and Flora try to carry on a conversation as he practices speaking with his mouth full of marbles.

Several scenes later, Comrade Charlotte, a predatory cougar who is a proud member of the Communist party, attempts to seduce the tongue-tied Harry in a musical number which had the audience in stitches. Heard out of context (and without being able to see the physical comedy playing out onstage), the song loses a great deal of its comedic impact.

Think, for a moment, about trick questions like  "Does this dress make me look fat?" and "When did you stop beating your wife?" Then imagine how easily the momentum of telling of a story can be derailed by all kinds of unforeseen variables.

In a provocative article entitled “Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use to Defend the Indefensible posted on her excellent blog (Bitter Gertrude), Melissa Hillman delivers a sorely needed reality check to theatre artists:
"Every professional knows there’s no such thing as 'total artistic freedom.' We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10 pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes."
Melissa Hillman (Photo by: Lisa Keating)

Bay area theatregoers recently witnessed world premiere productions of two new plays. While both were being presented by Berkeley-based theatre companies, one ran into an insurmountable physical problem which severely compromised the effectiveness of its actors.

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First presented in April by the Milagro Theatre in Portland Oregon, Into the Beautiful North is currently being staged by CentralWorks in Berkeley. After undergoing some revisions, the play will then be mounted in 2017 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s 16th Street Theater as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premieres program. Playwright Karen Zacarias explains that:
“As a big fan of Luis Alberto Urrea’s work, I jumped at the opportunity to adapt Into the Beautiful North for the stage. The great challenge with any adaptation is how to take a 400-plus page book, condense it, and find its theatrical language. Plays are literature in three dimensions. How do you make a very cinematic book into a piece of theater? It’s challenging to write a play about people who are in a car for 10 days and find a way to find the tension. Writing a road trip play when you don’t have a road and you don’t have a movie, you have to find a way to make that feeling of movement happen. The way you do that is to activate the audience’s imagination as much as possible. In my adaptation, eight actors become more than 40 characters and help tell the story of what happens when a young girl sets her mind to save the only world she knows.”
“This is a story about young people taking charge of their narrative and changing their circumstances. As a founder of the Latino Theater Commons, I think it is vital to update the American theater narrative to include the many stories of Latinos and Latinas. As a Mexican, I appreciate the rich characters on this epic journey that remind us how seldom we are portrayed as protagonists and nuanced human beings. As an immigrant, I am delighted to find an immigration story that is hilarious, poignant, biting, and centered on the universal needs and quirks of young girls who love their parents, Mexican Pop music, American films, and eBay. I think it is fitting that the play of Into the Beautiful North has as funny and arduous a journey as the characters in Luis Alberto Urrea’s wonderful book.”
The cast of Into the Beautiful North
by Karen Zacarias (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

A contemporary retelling of two classic films (The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven), Into The Beautiful North transforms the play’s protagonist into a young Latina from the fictional village of Tres Camarones in Sinaloa. Desperate to make her village safe from drug thugs, Nayeli and her friends embark on a dangerous road trip that takes them to Tijuana, San Diego, Nevada, Colorado, and finally to Kankakee, Illinois, where she discovers that her father (whom she had hoped to convince to return to Tres Camarones) has remarried and has a new family. Film icons such as Johnny Depp’s characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow and Toshiro Mifune’s swordsman (Kikuchiyo) play a heavy role in Nayeli’s fantasies while her aunt, Tia Irma, maintains a long-term crush on the sexy, baldness of Yul Brynner. Many of the play's scenes are like small vignettes loosely bound together by Nayeli's naive quest to reunite with her father.

Carlos Barrera as an American immigration officer in the
CentralWorks production of Into The Beautiful North
by Karen Zacarias (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Upon reading the script, Graves quickly fell in love with Zacarias's play but realized that Into The Beautiful North would pose some stiff challenges for his artistic team at CentralWorks.
“I love the play, but it will be hard to do. It’s very complicated in the performance. There are so many locales, so many events (a bus ride through Mexico, a road trip through the U.S.) and we do not have the means of production that a larger theater might have. These characters -- all together -- create a multifaceted view of this binational cultural situation that we are in right now. I’m more interested in making this a real human story than a kind of fairy tale. We need to resist the temptation to overdo it (another theater would go wild with elaborate scenic effects). We don’t want to suggest that what is happening is not real -- that it is fake. This idea has to be constantly used as a metric for the aesthetic choices we are making all along the way. We mustn’t lose the human truth at the heart of each of these characters.”
Caleb Cabrera is Atomiko in the CentralWorks production of
Into The Beautiful North by Karen Zacarias (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Although, at the performance I attended, some people gave the cast a standing ovation, I was much less enthusiastic about Zacarias's play. Performed before an audience of nearly 50 people seated on three sides of the tiny playing area within the Berkeley City Club (some living rooms are larger), the show's running time of nearly two hours was one of its biggest problems. The second challenge was a physical performance space which did little to support a "road trip" narrative.

I suspect that Into The Beautiful North would work much better on a proscenium stage as opposed to a tiny playing area where the actors are almost in the audience's laps. Despite Urrrea's ambitious and fanciful storytelling, the performers are in such tight quarters that the script has little, if any breathing room. Much of Zacarias's adaptation feels like the playwright was throwing scenes against a dramatic wall (like pasta) to see what would stick and what could be cut. While there are numerous funny lines, too much of her adaptation is reduced to a tiresome narrative exercise in desperate need of tightening.

Kitty Torres (Vampi), Samanta Yunuen Cubias (Nayeli), and
Rudy Guerrero (Tacho) in a scene from Into The Beautiful North
by Karen Zacarias (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

As Nayeli, Samanta Yunuen Cubias worked hard to maintain a sense of optimism and determination in her quest to bring some real men back to Tres Camarones. She was joined in her efforts by Kitty Torres as her practical goth friend, Vampi; Leticia Duarte as Tia Irma, a former bowling champion who still lusts after the elusive Chava (Ben Ortega); Carlos Barrera as Missionary Matt, and Richard Talavera as Pepe. The strongest performances came from Caleb Cabrera as Atomiko and Rudy Guerrero as Tacho. While the cast of Into The Beautiful North worked extremely hard to deliver the goods, this was not one of the company's better efforts.

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While the storytelling in Into The Beautiful North is relatively benign, the storytelling in The Last Tiger in Haiti is a survival skill for people whose lives have nowhere to go but up. Written by Jeff Augustin and beautifully directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, the world premiere production of this drama is a shared effort between the La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Both companies played a huge role in Last Tiger's developmental process through their respective dramatic incubator programs (Berkeley Rep's Ground Floor Summer Residency Lab and the La Jolla Playhouse's DNA New Work Series).

Augustin's description of the play's opening scene reads as follows:
"A tent shack in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The dying sound of kanaval rings in the air. It is distant, but ever threatening. Inside the tent, Rose (a beautiful, but dirty 11-year-old girl) sits on the dirt floor combing the few strands of her doll’s hair. She hums along with the music. It’s innocent, easy like. A beat. Outside, Max enters. He takes it all in, the way a man soon to be free does. A beat, maybe a lifetime. He lifts up a rock, removes a piece of tarp and wood, revealing a hole. He sticks his hand in the hole and removes an empty jar. It’s not supposed to be empty. He rushes back to the hole, he looks in. Maybe, just maybe the contents magically spilled out. It’s not there. Nothing is there."
Clinton Roane (Emmanuel) and Reggie D. White (Joseph) in
a scene from The Last Tiger in Haiti (Photo by: Jim Carmody)

While plenty of news stories have been written about human trafficking and people being sold into sexual slavery, precious little has appeared in the news about Haiti's large population of restavek children. Soon after Max's entrance, Joseph (Reggie D. White) and Emmanuel (Clinton Roane) return to their hovel where Rose (Brittany Bellizeare) is playing with a doll. Still wearing their costumes from kanaval (the one day of the year when they are free), the teenage boys attempt to scare the young girl. Although their language is raw, angry, and threatening, it fails to intimidate Rose, who is convinced that Max (Andy Lucien), is -- and always willbe -- her close friend and protector.

Joseph (Reggie D. White) impersonates the drunken "Mister" in
a scene from The Last Tiger in Haiti (Photo by: Jim Carmody)

Joseph and Emmanuel know better. They understand that Max (who is turning 18) will head for the hills that night to find somewhere he can live as a free man. While it would be easy to react to the initial antics onstage as if some teenagers were telling a ghost story, the situation for this group of restaveks is much more ominous. In her program note, Sarah Rose Leonard explains that:
  • Restavek children come from poor (mostly rural) Haitian families who send their offspring to live with wealthier urban families. A typical day for a restavek may include 10-14 hours of housework. Many live in abject poverty, sleep in improvised tents/hovels outside the main house, and are frequently tasked with fetching water as more then 2/3 of Haiti's population lacks potable water
  • The word restavek, which comes from the Creole and French languages, means ‘to stay with.’ At present, approximately 300,000-500,000 restaveks live in Haiti (primarily in the slums of its capital city, Port-au-Prince).
  • The status of restavek children is no higher than slaves or indentured servants. Some are expected to walk the host parents’ children to and from school regardless of whether they themselves are allowed to enter the school’s doors. 
  • There is a widespread culture of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in these households (restavek children are often subject to sexual abuse by the male head of house; girls can be used as concubines for the host family’s teenage boys).
  • Although the Haitian government passed an act in 2003 outlawing the placement of children into restavek service, enforcement is extremely lax. According to the nation's former President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the restavek practice has become so deeply ingrained in Haitian culture that many people don't even know they are breaking the law by using restaveks.
The cast of The Last Tiger in Haiti (Photo by: Jim Carmody)

Playwright Jeff Augustin's early inspiration for The Last Tiger in Haiti had nothing to do with Haiti's restaveks. He recalls that:
"I was thinking about escape, about never being allowed to be children. The initial idea I pitched to Berkeley Rep's Ground Floor Summer Residency Lab was about these three kids in Orlando who all came from abusive homes and were friends in high school. They'd tell all these violent folklores and put their parents (or whoever their abuser was) as the villain. It became a form of escape for them. Then, 30 years later, one of them reunites the group because he has just killed his former abusers and wants the other children to do so, too. I happened to read an article in The New York Times about restaveks and wondered why no one was talking about this. I later realized that this story really wanted to be set in Haiti and that the restaveks were still on my mind."
Andy Lucien (Max) and Brittany Bellizeare (Rose) in a
scene from The Last Tiger in Haiti (Photo by: Jim Carmody)

It takes some time for the audience to adjust to the Haitian dialect (in which the letter "r" is often pronounced as "w"). For those who might be squeamish about the heavy use of coarse, angry language, the dramatic payoff is well worth sticking around. Why? Because 15 years later Rose has become an accomplished author who lives in a handsome Miami condo with a breathtaking view and is soon to be married. Having run into Max at a book signing, their reunion takes a sobering turn which may shock the audience.

In an age when some people are eager to accuse others of cultural appropriation, The Last Tiger in Haiti is about the real thing. Not only does Augustin's play put the excuses of the appropriator on full display (along with the anguish and rage of the appropriated), it delivers a brutal reality check about how some people gloss over the physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic pains from their past in the process of making someone else's story their own.

I tip my hat to scenic designer Takeshi Kata and sound designer Nicholas Drashner for their excellent work on this production. Costume designer Dede Ayite and hair and wig designer Cookie Jordan are equally deserving of praise.

Jasmine St. Clair (Laurie) in a scene from The Last Tiger in Haiti
(Photo by: Jim Carmody)

While Jasmine StClair and Clinton Roane lend sturdy support as Laurie and Emmanuel, the evening's riveting drama rests on the sturdy shoulders of Reggie D. Williams, Brittany Bellizeare, and Andy Lucien, who deliver searing performances that (in one case) carry the pain of their childhood forward into a questionable future.

As performed by a remarkable ensemble, Augustin's drama is a powerful piece of theatre that relies on storytelling as a narrative vehicle, but demands that audiences face up to the question of who can claim ownership of a story. Cultural appropriation comes in surprising forms. The challenge of Haiti's "Krik? Krak!" call-and-response storytelling tradition demands an audience's buy-in and strict attention.

Poster art for The Last Tiger in Haiti

Performances of The Last Tiger in Haiti continue through November 27 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets).

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