Theater / Film
Review: Miami New Drama’s ‘Create Dangerously’ brings the beauty, sorrows of Haiti to Miami Beach
Charlene Francois, left, plays Tante Ilyana to Andrea Patterson’s Edwidge Danticat in the world premiere of “Create Dangerously” at Miami New Drama. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Díaz with FURIOSA Productions.)
In “Create Dangerously,” a new play based on the work of Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, an actor portraying playwright-director Liliana Blain-Cruz describes what the audience is about to see.
“This isn’t a play!” declares Brittany Bellizeare, a vibrant vision in a yellow suit and jaunty red cap. “It’s a strange amalgam of celebration and memory and reflection.”
True enough, though one could go in many different directions trying to put into words exactly how Blain-Cruz has adapted Danticat’s 2010 book of essays for its Miami New Drama world premiere, which is running at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre through May 28.
For instance: Partially to contextualize the work, Blain-Cruz has made herself and Danticat characters in the play (a little mind-blowing on opening night since the real Danticat and Blain-Cruz were actually in the audience). The actors, each of whom speaks as Danticat at various times in the play, dispense with theater’s imaginary fourth wall and frequently talk directly to the audience.
Stylistically, the effect is meta theater-meets-a-frame-story-meets-a-kind of visual anthropology. It’s like a hybrid of essay, theater and vivacious TED talk, with Haitian music, dance and art adding layers to the experience.
In terms of content, although “Create Dangerously” runs a fairly brisk 90 minutes, the piece incorporates a great deal of Haitian history as well as stories told in language that sometimes comes straight from the essays by Danticat, who has lived in South Florida for the past 21 years.
That’s legit, since Blain-Cruz is credited as the writer-director of the theater piece “based on the book by Edwidge Danticat.” It’s kind of lovely too, since that choice also allows you to absorb the style and impact of Danticat’s voice, one of the most important of the Haitian diaspora.
Her observant commentary on politics, art, family, courage and Haiti’s bloody history becomes the show’s throughline. A trek to visit her elderly Tante Ilyana on family land in mountainous Beauséjour – emphasizing the importance of nurturing ties through generations, collecting stories before the elderly depart this life for the next – has more of a beginning, middle and end than any other.
Other pieces are snapshots, some widely known, others not as much. Some untranslated Creole is sprinkled into the dialogue, but the play is performed in English.
Serious, smart and sincere, “Create Dangerously” could evolve into a more thrilling piece with an even more potent impact if its creators decide to keep working on it. But those snapshots? They’re always absorbing.
The chilling 1964 public execution of Jeune Haiti freedom fighters Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin on the orders of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier comes early on. Edson Jean and Paul Pryce portray the lifelong friends from Jérémie, Haiti’s “city of poets,” courageous men who left the safety of exile in New York to overthrow the Duvalier regime. There is no blood, but the sudden shocking sound of the firing squad and the actors’ physicalizing of Danticat’s words is horror enough.
In 2000, outspoken Radio Haiti Inter talk show host and journalist Jean Dominique (Pryce) was assassinated in the station’s parking lot, a murderous act conveyed in the play by gunfire and static. He, too, had been safe in exile but had come home to Haiti because, as he said, “My country needs hope. My country is suffering. It’s being held captive by criminals. My country is slowly dying, melting away.”
His wife Michèle Montas (Thiana Berrick, devastating yet powerfully tender), who customarily rode with him to work, tried to keep the station going for another three years until she too became the target of an assassination attempt in which one of her bodyguards lost his life.
Two hugely influential painters, Hector Hyppolite (Pryce) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jean), become compelling, contrasting characters. Samples of their work are “painted” behind them by projection designer Hannah Wasileski as each artist’s story is told.
The self-taught Hyppolite, a third-generation voudou priest born in poverty, initially painted with chicken feathers on cardboard because he had no money for brushes or canvases. “Discovered” at the age of 49 by American watercolorist Dewitt Peters, Hyppolite was championed by surrealist André Breton. Prolific near the end of his life, Hyppolite painted more than 600 canvases in the three years before his death at age 54 in 1948.
Basquiat was altogether different. Born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a middle-class Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, he absorbed New York’s artistic riches and began his career as half of the graffiti duo SAMO. An American who never visited Haiti, he pointedly sought fame (and found it) but rejected being grouped with the creators of “Haitian primatives” or being probed about the sources of his cultural memory. One of the most unsettling scenes in “Create Dangerously” features Berrick as art historian Marc Miller and Jean as Basquiat artfully lip-synching to the recording of a contentious interview between the two. By the time Basquiat was 27, a drug overdose took his life, though his fame and lucrative career live on; in 2017, his painting “Untitled, 1982” sold for a then-record $110.5 million at auction.
Storytelling is the key part of “Create Dangerously,” but Haitian music and dance are also among the artistic tools Blain-Cruz uses to convey the country’s culture. The cast dances together in party and family scenes, and Francois brilliantly expresses beauty, tragedy and power in her solo dance work.
The varied music resonates especially with those in the audience who know it, making it tough to resist standing up to dance or joining in mourning for lost loved ones and Haiti itself. Alan Cavé’s “Se pas pou dat,” Kassav’s “Zouk-la Sé Sel Médikaman Nou Ni,” Manno Charlemagne’s “Manman” and RAM’s “Symphony du Ghetto”
In the text, former Miamian Blain-Cruz acknowledges her own insecurity as an artist trying to craft a play about Haiti without ever having visited her mother’s homeland. She underscores the price an artist can pay for truth-telling when she has Danticat speak of the controversy surrounding her 1994 debut novel “Breath, Eyes, Memory.” In that book, the author writes of a traumatizing “virginity test” some Haitian mothers regularly administered to their daughters, prompting one offended reader to write, “You are a parasite and you exploit your culture for money and what passes for fame.”
Just six actors portray a universe of characters in “Create Dangerously,” but because the performers are so convincing and quick in their transformations, the cast seems much larger.
Pryce, tall and charismatic, conveys Hippolite’s sincere spirituality, the physical limitations of age in Danticat’s uncle, the fierce bravery of Dominique. Miamian Jean embodies Basquiat’s anger and ambition, the teasing affection of Danticat’s cousin, and contributes the gentle guitar accompaniment to “Manman.” Berrick, another Miamian, has a series of breakthrough moments throughout the piece in her best work to date.
Andrea Patterson is loving and curious as Danticat in her scenes with Francois as the reed-thin, devoted, stubborn Tante Ilyana, the latter transforming her limber dancer’s body into the physique of a woman who has known too many years of pain and hard work. As Blain-Cruz, Bellizeare is as much of a magnetic life force as the director herself.
The design elements of “Create Dangerously” are, at times, breathtaking. That’s not exactly a surprise since Blain-Cruz, the resident director at New York’s Lincoln Center, brought her longtime team with her to Miami Beach.
Tony Award-nominated set designer Adam Rigg has created a collection of boxes of various heights to represent Haiti’s countryside and hills, with Tante Ilyana’s mountain projected mountain behind. The boxes are adorned in the style of Haitian paintings, with lush greenery and vibrant flowers, and downstage a long row of flickering candles and voudou offerings to the gods serves as a reminder of those lost to the living.
Wasileski’s projections and Yi Zhao’s lighting create ever-shifting backgrounds, making stars twinkle in the blue-black night sky, sending a tiny flock of birds over the mountain. Zhao is a kind of painter too, his lights bringing out melancholy, fear and the healing power of joy, however brief.
Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes range from vivid citrus-hued colors to elegant white for the finale. Sound designer and composer Palmer Hefferan serves up music both subtle and bold, jolting the audience with the sudden boom of gunfire, soothing it with a soft symphony of nighttime crickets on the mountain.
In “Create Dangerously,” Blain-Cruz and Danticat have teamed up, via this hard-to-categorize piece of theater, to urge artists and those who love the arts to take risks, speak out, and display the sort of courage explored in the play.
This has a specific cultural context, but given Florida’s largest-in-the-country Haitian-American community, it should speak resonantly to those who understand the play’s world and layered nuances. And in a region where immigrant artists from many nations have fled tyranny to work in freedom, “Create Dangerously” should have an even broader impact.
WHAT: World premiere of “Create Dangerously” by Lileana Blain-Cruz, based on the work of Edwidge Danticat
WHERE: Miami New Drama production at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through May 28
INFORMATION: 305-674-1040 or miaminewdrama.org
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