What is a story? What is its purpose? A story can entertain or educate. It can comfort or unsettle. It can foster divisions or forge connections. A good story can do many of these things at once. The Last Tiger in Haiti is a very good story.
The characters in this play are restaveks: impoverished or orphaned children taken in by families of slightly greater means and used as domestic slave labor until they are 18. This is not a fictionalization and this play is not set in the past: the non-profit Restavek Freedom estimates that currently, more than 300,000 children in Haiti are restaveks. The play indulges in a degree of slightly clunky (but necessary) exposition to give this background in the first few minutes of the play. The life of a restavek often involves physical and sexual abuse in addition to unpaid labor. In spite of the hopes some parents might have had that giving up their children would at least provide them with food, shelter and education in exchange for household labor, the reality is that most restaveks work throughout their childhood and are then released back into poverty and homelessness at age 18 with no schooling and no money.
The first act of The Last Tiger in Haiti takes place one night during Carnival. Five young restaveks who work for the same family are celebrating the impending freedom of the eldest, Max (Andy Lucien), who has just turned 18. They gather in the ramshackle lean-to with a roof of worn, colorful bolts of cloth that serves as their shared bedroom, partake of stolen booze, and entertain, educate, comfort, unsettle, altercate, and bond as they take turns sharing stories that are partly grounded in Haitian folklore and partly in their own experiences. Shadow play and song serve to animate some of the stories, and the actors do an excellent job with the challenge of keeping the children’s tales engaging while also portraying that some of the youth are better and more experienced storytellers than others. The heightened world of the stories, together with the undercurrent of fear and desperation in the storytellers, lends an ominous tone to the first act, making the shocking turn of events at the end of the act feel earned. The play could have easily ended at this point, as a one-act illumination of a human rights abuse in a particular cultural context told through the frame of stories. The fact that it does not, fundamentally transforms the story this play is telling.
The second half of The Last Tiger in Haiti takes us to the future of Rose (Brittany Bellizeare), the youngest and most innocent of the five children we met in the first act. We are told she was adopted by Americans and has, as an adult, become a successful memoirist by telling her story of her past as a restavek. The simple set of the first act is replaced with an expensive replication of a Miami apartment with wall to wall windows, sleek modern furniture, and a cabinet of expensive liquors, reflecting how Rose’s world of subsistence has changed into a world of plenty. But when one of the other resteveks unexpectedly finds her, puncturing a hole in her glossy new life, the thematic terrain of The Last Tiger in Haiti suddenly shifts. The play blooms into an intellectual unpacking of power dynamics: the power dynamic of slavery, the power dynamic of appropriating stories, the power dynamics involved in how we define and present stories to an audience and for what purpose, the power dynamics involved in how we see ourselves, how others see us, and what our actions reveal us to be.
I always like to listen to what the audience is saying as they walk out of the theatre, and the universal praise of The Last Tiger in Haiti suggests that this play left audience both moved and intellectually challenged. You should see this play because it is a very good story, but you should also see it because it is an important story. The sharing of stories can be incredibly powerful and this play both reminds us and warns us of that.
Reasons to Go:
- This is an excellent and engaging play that spotlights what is perhaps the oppressed group most in need of having their story shared: child slaves.
- #DiversityOnStage. This play, primarily set in Haiti, features actors of color in every role. The solid cast believably portrays both the youth of the characters they play and the various complex undertones of their interactions with one another. Andy Lucien as Max is a particular stand-out, anchoring the play with his moving performance.
- #DiversityOnPage. In his interview in the playbill, Playwright Jeff Augustin discusses being inspired by the storytelling of his Haitian mother. This highlights how producing the works of diverse writers can lead to more diverse stories on stage. At the same time, Augustin is himself American, and perhaps this liminal position made him particularly self-reflexive in this play about the ethical complexities of telling someone else’s story of oppression.
Who should go: Everyone
- The playbill has important background information on the history of the restaveks in Haiti (and information the historical role the US played in Haiti’s current impoverished state) and you should read it.
- I did feel like the interview with the author clued me in on a couple major twists of the play. Consider saving that part of the playbill to read until after the play.
- The Berkeley Rep has put some interesting facts related to the play and/or Haiti behind the bathroom stall doors. Yes, I do kind of wish they’d put copies of this info the lobby so I wasn’t engaging in a bathroom scavenger hunt (that I got side-eyed for by people actually trying to use the bathroom), but I appreciate the effort to share the dramaturgical research.
- See it soon! The play only runs until late November.
- This one is important: bring cash. The Berkeley rep is collecting cash donations for two great charities: Restavek Freedom and The Lambi Fund of Haiti after each performance.
Themes: child slavery, slavery, storytelling, Haiti, folklore, memoir, truth, oppression, narrative appropriation
Warnings: Allusions to violence and sexual assault.
Show information: The Last Tiger in Haiti is playing at Berkeley Rep until November 27. Check the linked calendar for performances with pre- or post- show docent-led discussions.