Waves whoosh in and out, and seabirds cry over the speakers. Sand piles up and spills over corners and floor the floor of the set. A young man looks around in terror as he collects branches to build a raft. Another, slightly older man watches from the shadows.
We’re in Haiti during the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and no one is safe, especially not these two men: “There are eyes,” the older man says, making the younger man jump. “Eyes speak because eyes get threatened.”
Jeff Augustin’s play Cry Old Kingdom takes three characters (including the older man’s wife) from their places of hiding into the deadly light of day during a dictatorial, murderous time for Haiti.
Because the Duvalier regime lasted from 1957 to 1971, many people in the audience (not only at the Humana Fest, but in most theatres) will know little about it. That means Augustin bears the weight of getting history right but also informing the audience while building believable characters.
I wondered how the playwright – a young grad student at the University of California–San Diego – went about his research, and how he came up with his characters and the setting of this claustrophobic environment, where everything is tenuous and everyone is both threatening and deeply threatened.
We spoke on the morning after the final performance of Cry Old Kingdom.
Let’s talk research. How did you research this play, set in this quasi-dictatorship in Haiti in 1964?
My major research was my mom. She was born [in Haiti] a year before [“Papa Doc”] Duvalier came into power.
I’ve always been fascinated with this time. My mom talks about the tragic things that happened, but she romanticizes Haiti in this beautiful way. As an undergrad, I wrote this horrible 10-minute play that tried to communicate what it was like living there.
I was reading Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat, and I was fascinated with this idea. In my work I’ve always dealt with the Haitian-Amerian experience. I have seven siblings, and only two of us [including me] were born here. What is my right to tell these stories? And so reading that book, I became fascinated also because she talks a lot about journalists and artists at that time – what does an artist do during dictatorships? Do you create art that rebels, art that’s for the regime — or do you stop creating art?
I grew up in Miami, and constantly you’re seeing on the news people putting their bodies, well, using tubes and cars and all sorts of things trying to immigrate to Miami. Creating something that’s most likely unstable, to get yourself to another country, I became fascinated with that.
Being an artist and creating during that time, what pushes us to risk our lives like that? Because my mom romanticizes Haiti. We hear such tragic things about people wanting to flee, but there are people wanting to stay and fight for their country. And that’s what I wanted, I guess, to do with these three characters.
A lot of the research was just calling my mom. Like the moment that the guys talk about the soccer teams, I was walking around campus trying to get to the reveal of that scene, I thought football — so I called my mom and said, what are two rival football teams, what’s your favorite?
Who’s your favorite futbol team?
Ah, yes, the pivotal test. The same team my father loved and every great man, Zenith
(HENRI MARX sucks his teeth)
Everyone likes that team, women love that team
Cause they’re good, manly
Because you don’t know the sport. You’ve probably seen them play once, twice maybe.
And since everyone says they’re good and they win all the time, you like them
Fuck you, who’s your favorite team?
Racine. They are sportsmen. Patient, tactful, strike without the aggression, the spectacle.
They play with respect and elegance
And that’s a man?
My mom came up from Miami to see this show, the first piece of my writing that she’s ever seen. So I got to feel like I got part of the history right. She was reacting to moments that no one else was reacting to.
Yes, speaking of that, Louisville and the Humana Fest don’t have a huge Haitian-American community coming to the play. What do you think the audience members like me are missing?
It’s oddly small things. The designer added a song between preview and opening. My mom saw the preview, and when she saw the opening, she started singing the song. There’s little details about the regime, and how it worked, things that she knew that I got out of [other, book] research, that she picked up on. How characters reacted to certain things.
Like, “Zombies do great things with their voices” – that turned out to be this funny line here, but in Haiti, they’re real.
So how would you define success for a new play?
The world being realized. That is, for me personally, understanding the world [of the play] — sitting in this room with the actors and Tom [Dugdale, the director], there were moments I wrote that didn’t work, and it was like I need to create this moment. For instance, [one moment] was a lot more elaborate than it ended up being. When they first blocked it, it was too elaborate. Because the kitchen table [in the set] was the only table there, they went back to the kitchen table, talking through action and intent.
Tom just had them read the scene at the table, and I looked at him, and he looked at me, and we were like that’s it, at the table. It’s not more elaborate, it’s quite simple.
It’s successful when you as a writer learn what the rules of the world actually are. You learn what works and you learn what doesn’t work. Something you can take for granted watching a new play, things will change, you don’t always get it right on the first play. You learn about the world.