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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Dessalines (The Heart) Blood and Liberation

Just ask Shakespeare - the warrior king makes a great topic for a play. Two hundred years ago, history gave us Jean Jacques Dessalines, who lead the Haitian people to freedom from France and ultimately crowned himself emperor of the newly formed nation. Playwright Levy Lee Simon tells this story in Dessalines (The Heart) Blood and Liberation, the second play in his Haitian independence trilogy, For the Love of Freedom.

The story of Dessalines, "The Tiger," is at once unique and terribly familiar. Dessalines led an army of uneducated former slaves to independence for the only time in recorded history. But Dessalines was unable to lead his people in peace. Drunk with power, unskilled at political compromise, and so terrified of again losing his people to slavery, he would slaughter whites who presented no threat to him, Dessalines nearly destroyed the fragile country he had successfully brought into being against incredible odds.

If his story sounds like a massive undertaking for a small theatre, it is. Dessalines is performed by an ensemble cast of nearly forty, and plays approximately three hours. It mixes traditional drama with other storytelling forms, making brief forays into dance and song. Additionally, the production is accompanied by live percussionists who lay down rhythms not only for the more dance-related sequences, but some of the dramatic scenes as well. Dessalines is an ambitious production, and it is at its most successful when it is transcending the bounds of traditional stagecraft. The actual revolution scene, in which an army of 20,000 is represented by less than twenty men, precisely choreographed with narration provided by the increasingly-excited voices of four female "praise singers," is exceptional.

Karl Calhoun (Christophe), Abner Genece (Dessalines), Ayana Cahrr (Defilee), and Rico Anderson (Petion)

In other places, however, the scope of the production defeats its effectiveness. The show opens with the praise singers summarizing the first play of the trilogy. For those who did not actually see the first play and do not otherwise have a good working knowledge of Haitian history, it is so fact-heavy it is nearly impossible to follow. Its comprehensibility is not aided by the fact that the audience is on both sides of the stage, so at any given time, the praise singer providing narration will have her back toward half the audience. Add in the loud drumbeats, and this is a history lesson that does not fully reach its students. A synopsis of the first play would be truly welcome in the program. In its absence, the audience spends a good part of the first act trying to figure out who is who and with whom he happens to be allied.

The pacing of the show also needs to be quickened. There's a moment in which a French leader commits a horrible act of brutality against a black prisoner. It is disgusting, both for the act itself and for the reaction of the other characters onstage, who all approve. Thereafter, the lights drop while the company rearranges itself for a short epilogue to the scene. While the initial scene packed a powerful emotional wallop, the follow-up scene does not. During the lengthy set change, the audience revulsion has dissipated. Either the first scene must flow unimpeded into the second, or the second should be cut altogether.

The large cast puts in some solid work. At its center is Abner Genece as Dessalines. Genece is a big man, and he stands with the posture of someone who dares anyone to ask him to bend. As the wartime General, Genece paints a picture of barely - and rarely - controlled rage. As the King, Genece lets loose a charismatic smile and joy at life that almost, but not quite, enables you to forget the acts of cruelty he is committing. Standouts in the ensemble include Rico E. Anderson as Alexander Petion, a general who is more of a thinking man than Dessalines. Anderson is best with his facial expressions, which frequently tell the audience that Petion thinks something very different from what he is saying. Also noteworthy is Ayana Cahrr as Defilee, a woman who expresses both physical love for and spiritual protectiveness over Dessalines. Cahrr is extremely energetic, and when she bounds onstage and jumps into Dessalines' arms, she brings a vitality to an otherwise slow moving portion of the play.

No doubt, Dessalines is a play that needs some work. But it has great potential as an exciting evening that gives us some insight into the mindset of a man who nearly destroyed his people in an effort to preserve their hard-won freedom. Dessalines runs at the Greenway Court Theatre, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00, through October 20. For tickets and information, call (323) 655-4402.

The Robey Theatre Company & Greenway Arts Alliance present For the Love of Freedom, Part II - Dessalines (The Heart) Blood and Liberation, a trilogy by Levy Lee Simon, directed by Ben Guillory. Producers Ben Guillory, Cynthia F. Stillwell, Pierson Blaetz, Whitney Weston; Production Assistants Shameka Cunningham, Kimberlee Furgess; Publicity Philip Sokoloff, Publicity for the Arts; Production Stage Manager John Freeland, Jr.; Assistant Erica Roddy; Graphics and Illustration Haneef Bhatti; Fight Choreographer Yvans Jourdain; Musical Director Leon Mobley; Set Designer Marcos DeLeon; Lighting Designer Marianne Schneller; Costume & Hair Design Niala Aladdin-Sanders; Choreographer Ayana Cahrr; Sound Engineer Anthony Carr.

Cast: Erinlee Adamson, Rico E. Anderson, Tina Tena Ansah, Ayana Cahrr, Karl Calhoun, Erica Clare, Robert Clements, Gary Lynn Collier, Olivia D. Dawson, Angela Duckett, Stephan Early, Roderick Emil, Elsa Fisher, Abner Genece, Omari Hardwick, Royce Herron, Douglas Howington, Steve Humphreys, Lanre Idewu, Amad Jackson, Ben Jurand, Sylvester Kamara, Tamara Lynch, Leon Mobley, Nafeesa Monroe, Kiersten Morgan, Jerome Murdock, Staci Mitchell N'Kosi, Aaron Norvell, Annette Remmington, Vonn Richardson, Kem Saunders, Doug Sinclair, Annika P. Smith, Erica Sullivan, Tegan Summer, LaFern Watkins, Erica M. Zuniga.

Photo by Darryl Sivad

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