Review: Revival of William DuBois's "Haiti" at the Theatricum Botanicum
By Laura Wagner (Duke University)
The Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California revived William DuBois’s Haiti this summer, it was the first time the play had been performed since it premiered in 1938, at the Negro Theatre Unit of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project. Although the play has been widely misattributed to W.E.B. Du Bois, William DuBois was a white playwright and novelist who later became the editor of the New York Times Book Review. DuBois’s Haiti tells the story of the final months of the Haitian Revolution, featuring historical characters (Generals Toussaint Louverture and Henri Christophe on the Haitian side, General Charles LeClerc and Pauline Bonaparte on the French side) along with an array of imaginary subalterns, revolutionaries, servants, and lovers.
A play’s revival is a curious thing, and it is not clear if it is better for audience members to view such a performance as a work of contemporary art or instead as a historical artifact. As a historical document, the play Haiti is a fascinating glimpse of how revolutionary Haiti was imagined and represented among “progressive” white Americans a mere four years after the end of the twenty-year US occupation of Haiti and nearly thirty years before the Civil Rights Act became law. In 1938, Haiti’s portrayal of Black triumph and interracial romance may have been radical for US audiences. As a standalone work of art in 2018, however -- presented without historical context or analysis of its creation -- the play’s perspective and politics are somewhat uneasy. Watching Haiti today, I was struck by seeming contradictions: sympathetic portrayals of Black characters right alongside warmed-over stereotypes of them.
Haiti is a melodrama. Its aim is not verisimilitude, but rather the depiction of archetypal heroes and villains. The characters are symbols drawn in broad strokes, neither nuanced nor complicated. Christophe is a handsome and noble leader. Toussaint is the brilliant, but weary, general. Indeed, these historical figures are almost too noble and uncomplicated to be believable, and their purity makes them more saintly than human. Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister and wife of General Leclerc, on the other hand, is shallow, petty, vain, heartless, and chronically seasick. Leclerc himself is cartoonishly brutal and bombastic, wildly resisting the French army’s inevitable defeat whilst succumbing to yellow fever, vomiting blood into a basin held by a lackey.
Certain clichés have not aged well. One of the play’s major protagonists, Odette, is the daughter of a white man and an enslaved Black woman. As a classic “tragic mulatress," she is beautiful and privileged, able to move through white society, yet forever viewed as exotic. As a woman of color returning to the land of her birth while married to the cruel and cunning French Colonel Boucher, she is characteristically torn between two worlds. Jacqueline, an older, formerly enslaved woman and member of the armée indigène who becomes the seemingly loyal servant to the French troops, at times veers uncomfortably into a grovelling stereotype. However, her deference is eventually revealed to be a twofold tactical move on her part, enabling her to get close to Odette, the daughter she lost twenty years ago, and to spy on the French for the Haitian revolutionaries. “We were all slaves a few years ago. I am too old to forget,” Jacqueline states early on. At the beginning of the play, these sound like words of brokenness and resignation, but by the end, they are a declaration of resistance and revenge.
For a play about the Haitian Revolution, white French characters get an awful lot of stage time. With the exception of Odette’s loyal but somewhat forgettable lover Duval, these characters are universally unflattering and unsympathetic -- the audience is clearly supposed to be rooting for the Haitian revolutionaries, in general, and for Jacqueline, in particular. Why, then, is so much of the dialogue devoted to the strategies of French military officers? Why do so many of the Haitian characters have no names? One is left to conclude that in 1938 white people still had to be foregrounded, even in a play about Black triumph, even in a play produced by the Negro Theatre Unit in Harlem.
By changing the gender of one of the play’s protagonists, the 2018 Haiti revival makes a significant departure from the original script described above, and this change alters the essence of the original play. In the 1938 script, Jacqueline was Jacques, a former “house slave” at the Moreau plantation, and an adjutant to Christophe himself, a “slender mulatto of fifty with a fine, sensitive face,” whose long-dead “lover,” Marguerite, was an “octoroon,” “lovely, rich, white,” descended from enslavers and “a Gold Coast Queen” (DuBois 1938). In the 2018 adaptation, however, Odette is the daughter of Jacqueline, a Black woman, who was impregnated by the (white) son of the plantation owner who enslaved her. Both Jacqueline and Odette wear miniatures of the man in lockets around their necks, and Jacqueline still mourns her lost love.
Perhaps this change was intended to challenge sexist stereotypes, since Jacqueline, a woman, is one of the play’s main revolutionaries. And I imagine that a mother-and-daughter reunion packs a readier emotional punch than the story of a daughter reunited with her father. The relationship between the two sympathetic female protagonists is the heart of the play, but the Jacques-to-Jacqueline gender-flip sends an even queasier message than the original script. Simply put, slaveholding men and enslaved women did not have torrid, consensual love affairs. Consent does not exist when one person is the legal property of the other. Slaveholding men raped enslaved women.
While technically a play about the Haitian Revolution, all the action plays out in the salon of a Saint-Domingue plantation house -- a drawing room play about liberation and war. Haiti was written as a melodrama, and the actors and director lean into this. Earnestine Phillips in particular gave a poignant, impassioned performance as Jacqueline, managing to bring humanity to the role despite the heavy-handed dialogue. Mark Lewis played Leclerc to ridiculous effect. The sword-fighting scenes were unintentionally comical -- several audience members giggled as Christophe, ninja-like, fought of a bevy of armed Frenchmen single-handedly.
The Theatricum Botanicum is an open-air amphitheater set into the the hills of Topanga Canyon, in California’s Santa Monica Mountains of California. The stage is rustic, surrounded by trees and scrubland. Haiti’s creative team took excellent advantage of the physical space. When the Haitian revolutionaries escape into the mountains to evade capture, strategize, and eventually seize the plantation, the actors dash through the steep, wooded footpaths behind the amphitheater.
Certain other directorial choices were more discomfiting. The Black actors, portraying Haitian people, spoke with what I assume were supposed to be “Haitian” accents (which were not Haitian at all, but rather an inconsistent hybrid of French and generalized “Caribbean”), while the white actors, playing French people, spoke with either US American or British accents. The inconsistency of the dialect was disorienting, and, for all that the production clearly sympathizes with the revolutionaires, the fact that the Haitian characters were assigned the “foreign” accent clearly marked them as the Other.
At two points, the Haitian characters break into song. The first time is subdued, as Jacqueline, in soliloquy, reveals to Christophe the story of losing Odette; the second time is triumphant, when the Haitian army emerges victorious over the French. Both times, they sing “Wangol-o,” a traditional Haitian folk song. It is a bittersweet and mournful song, conveying loss and longing. Wangol-o, w ale! Kilè w ap vini wè m ankò? Peyi a chanje, kilè w ap vini wè m ankò? Peyi a, peyi a, peyi a fin tonbe. (Wangol-o, you have gone. When will you come to see me again? The country has changed, when will you come to see me again? The country, the country has fallen at last…) As an audience member familiar with the song, the joyous reprise at the end of the play felt to me confusing, even somewhat obscene. Christophe and his men triumph, taking the plantation house and replacing the French flag with the Haitian bicolore, while Odette lies on the ground, having lost both her lover and her mother in short order. Christophe declares “Haiti is ours forever, my people! We are free!” and the Haitian characters sing, in jubilation: The country, the country has fallen at last…
Despite these misgivings, I can imagine a compelling post-performance discussion with scholars of the Haitian Revolution, theater historians, experts on the WPA, and so on, who might discuss the context and history of the production. In so doing, the gendered and racialized tropes contained therein could be analyzed, and the audience would then come away with a much better understanding of the ways in which Haiti was imagined and represented by US American writers, both Black and white, throughout the twentieth century. But this production did not do those things, and left me unsure of how to feel, or what to think, as I watched the revolutionaries emerge victorious while the women were destroyed.
DuBois, William. "Haiti," eds. Pierre de Rohan and the U.S. Federal Theatre Project. Federal Theatre Plays. New York: Random House, 1938.