If we depended on the news media to learn the history of the island nation of Haiti, we would not know a lot of substance. Various dictators, earthquakes, and humanitarian crises have occurred, usually seen as happening far from American shores. The Tragedy of King Christophe by House Theatre takes us back to the beginning of the first Black republic, which may have set the standard for political instability that is still in effect today. Africans were enslaved and brought to Haiti to work the cane fields and supply wealth to its colonizer—France. Toussaint Louverture led a rebellion that wrested Haiti from France. Louverture died imprisoned in France. Henri Christophe and his compatriot Alexandre Pétion assassinated Jean Jacques Dessalines, Louverture’s second in command. That story, The Tragedy of King Christophe, was written by Aimé Césaire and directed by Lanise Antoine Shelley.
That is where the story begins with two men at odds over how to run Haiti. The play opens with beautiful drumming from Eric Thomas and a gorgeous chant/song from the Commentator—a griot played by Mondisa Monde. The drumming and music are distinctly African and contain the roots of gospel music. This is soul music that reaches down deep. Some of the audience spontaneously said “amen” and clapped in rhythmic approval. The scene is set for a cockfight that is a metaphor for Christophe and Pétion fighting over who will rule Haiti and how it will be run. William Anthony Sebastian Rose II commands the stage as Christophe with a regal bearing and exquisite diction in a Haitian Creole patois. This is an explosive and tragic telling of one man’s fight to have an African nation ruled by Africa while using the methods of the former colonizers.
The cast is excellent in this production. With the exception of Rose as Christophe, they play multiple roles and do each of them on point. Christian Bufford as Alexandre Pétion is a study in subtlety and stoicism. Pétion wanted a democratic republic that was elected and ruled by a president and legislative branch. Christophe saw this as rife with mulattoes and not truly of Africa. The late playwright Aimé Césaire was a Martinican poet, writer, and politician who promoted the theory of negritude—meaning the promotion of pride in all things of Africa. The dialog in this play is from a translation by Paul Breslin and Rachel Ney, which has a Shakespearean meter enhanced by beautiful Creole Haitian patois. Serious kudos to the dialect coach and dramaturg Maya Vinice Prentiss. The kingdom that Christophe has built has some comic moments from Matthew Lolar as Hugonin, the court jester. Hugonin has Chaplinesque moves and timing. His interactions with Christophe are hilarious and serve as a jester’s cutting the tension of Christophe’s increasing madness. Keith Illedge is in fine form as Christophe’s trusted fixer and assassin Magny. Illedge gives the role a sinister edge as a man who enjoys killing and then seamlessly plays a gentle fisherman warning of storms ahead—both metaphorical and literal.
Chris Khoshaba has several roles as the Bishop and his ghost reading last rites in Latin. Khoshaba also plays a harried coronation consultant tasked with a proper ceremony for Christophe. His attempts at turning selected villagers into a noble class based on European standards are quite funny. Jyreika Guest plays the presenter of the scepter with comic flair and then a stunning turnabout as a rebel against Christophe who is defiant in heading toward death. She and Christophe lock eyes in anger that is palpable. She has a lovely gamine quality that serves all of her roles quite well. Leslie Ann Sheppard brings a regal air to Madame Christophe. She portrays a wife desperate to get Christophe to back down and take care of his health but also is a victim of his ire. The scene between Madame Christophe and Christophe is thick with tension and signals a final descent into madness and defiance. They are all excellent supporting performances but the stage belongs to Christophe as Rose. This is a role that could have easily gone into Grand Guignol histrionics in the hands of a lesser actor. Rose has a fierce and regal bearing that suits a monarch and he projects the empathy needed to show what kind of nation Christophe wanted to build. Christophe is an example of striving for pure negritude that goes off the rails into dictatorship and nationalism.
Lanise Antoine Shelley is both the director of this fine production and the new artistic director of the House Theatre. She is of Haitian descent and brings a deep and loving authenticity to The Tragedy of King Christophe. Her direction is seamless and gives each of the actors an integral part in each scene as they play several parts. That would be a tall order with a cast of 20 and she does it handily with a cast of eight.
Sadira Muhammed’s choreography is infused with dazzling movement and rhythm. Jon Beal serves as the fight choreographer and does a stellar job of the mano-a-mano between Christophe and Pétion. The swordplay is intense and made more than a few audience members jump in their seats. This is theater at its finest and I highly recommend that you see it. The Tragedy of King Christophe will ignite your curiosity about a chapter in Haitian history that is not often told. This attempt at monarchy set a course for generational discord and division in Haitian politics. The intention was to glorify the descendants of Africa but it resulted in over two centuries of colonialism, American protectionism, and a blight on the industries that made other countries wealthy. Go see it— this is Chicago theater at its rebellious and fearless best.
The House Theatre’s production of The Tragedy of King Christophe is playing at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St., through May 29. Tickets are $20-$50 and are available at www.housetheatre.com. Covid protocols are in place, so please bring your proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours and a picture ID. Masks are required to be worn throughout the theater at all times. Protect yourself, the audience, and the actors. Chicago theater is back and let’s keep it that way.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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