Chances are, The Last Tiger in Haiti will be your first exposure to the heartbreaking plight of the restaveks, child slaves in Haiti whose freedom and much, much more is robbed of them until they reach the age of 18. This is not an extinct, sorrowful chapter in the island nation's past, either. As many as 300,000 restaveks are believed still living in Haiti, where child slavery is frowned upon but not banned. The world-premiere play The Last Tiger in Haiti at La Jolla Playhouse is harrowing, but in the darkness flickers the light of these young peopleís survival—Haiti's traditional art of storytelling.
In the play written by UC San Diego MFA graduate Jeff Augustin and directed by fellow grad Joshua Kahan Brody, five young ones address their fears, keep their hopes alive and bond in as close to a loving family as they can get, by telling folk stories. The tales are riveting and animated, making the first act of The Last Tiger in Haiti, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, magnetic drama. Each of the restaveks—Max (Andy Lucien), Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair), Joseph (Reggie D. White), Emmanuel (Clinton Roane) and the younger Rose (Brittany Bellizeare)ófully inhabits his or her story, giving the narratives immediacy and theatricality.
The arrival of Act 2, a fast forward into the future, finds Rose grown and the published author of a book about her child-slave life. But Max, who's visiting her at Rose's swanky Miami home, begins a confrontational dialogue that upends to some extent everything we learned in Act 1. Integral as this development may be to Augstin's story, it gives the play a disjointedness if not wholly diminishing the poignancy of the first-act folk tales.
Max is arguably the play's central character, and Lucien's intense portrayal is the vessel that contains all of The Last Tiger in Haiti's anger and hurt. Bellizeare's Rose is more credible in the first half of the production when she taps into the insecurities of childhood. St. Clair, for her part, is magical when she tells and sings the story of "The Orange Tree" in Act 1, a lyrical sequence that momentarily, but only momentarily, distracts you from The Last Tiger in Haiti's grim reality.
The Last Tiger in Haiti runs through July 24 at La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD campus. $20-$59; lajollaplayhouse.org
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