Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The characters who populate Jeff Augustin's The Last Tiger in Haitifive children held in slavery in contemporary Haitilive in fear of an angry god who is far from imaginary. He is Mister, an off-stage presence, but one who nonetheless controls every aspect of the children's lives. The children are Max, the oldest and leader of the group; Emmanuel and Joseph, two typically mischievous, rough-and-tumble teenage boys; Laurie, just coming into young womanhood; and Rose, the youngest, still playing with dolls, using themfittinglyto tell stories.
As the play begins, it is Kanaval night in Haiti, the one day of the year the children are allowed to rest from their labors. Despite this, it is not an auspicious night, especially for Max (a powerful Andy Lucien), who, despite the fact that he is to be freed the next day, returns to the ragged tent the children share to discover that the money he had managed to save (and carefully hide) for his new life has been stolen.
When Emmanuel, Joseph, and Laurie return from the revelry, joining Rose and Max in the tent, they distract themselves from the ever-looming menace of Mister by telling stories in the Caribbean tradition: the person with a story to tell stands up and says "crick!" If the audience wants to hear the story, a majority of them must answer back with "crack!" and the story begins.
At first it seems the stories they tell are myths, tall tales complete with ghosts and zombies and unlikely heroes. But as the first act continues, it becomes clearer and clearer that these stories are in fact based in their real lives. The constant horror in which they live (unceasing work, beatings, sexual abuse) creates a sort of cognitive dissonance: it's so unspeakable that the only way to deal with it is by speaking of it. But only in metaphor and symbology.
Despite the depressing nature of the children's lives, their storytelling is both spellbinding and intellectually challenging, forcing those of us in the audience to not only face the terror but to uncover the truths that are hidden deep within the fictions the children spin.
This search for truth continues in act two, which takes place 15 years later, when Rose (Brittany Bellizeare) and Max meet again under very different circumstance. Stories are still being told, but now we (and the characters) must work to discover the underlying fiction that has been packaged as truth, and the truth that has been papered over by time and selective memory.
The cast works well as an ensemble, giving a true sense of family to this collection of orphans. In addition to fine work from Lucien and Bellizeare, Clinton Roane and Reggie D. White do a wonderful job of presenting teen energy and youthful (but false) bravado, while Jasmine St. Clair brings a flirtatious confidence to the character of Laurie.
The Last Tiger in Haiti is filled with horror and hope, poverty and power, violence and vindicationa recipe for a thought-provoking night of storytelling.
The Last Tiger in Haiti runs through November 27, 2016, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performance on Tuesday 11/24 and 8:00 p.m. performances only on 10/29. Tickets from $29-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Half-price tickets available to anyone under 30. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.