In terms of rehearsal space, it’s hard to do worse than the gymnasium at the Denker Avenue Recreational Center in South L.A. near USC. Though the center itself is sparkling and newly refurbished, the gym’s acoustics and stage-worthiness are virtually nonexistent. A long row of windows affords a fishbowl view of the proceedings to anyone walking — or running or dribbling — by. But to members of the Robey Theater Company doing a run-through tonight of Levy “Lee” Simon’s third and final installment of an ambitious trilogy of plays about the heroes of the Haitian Revolution (For the Love of Freedom, Part III: Christophe [The Spirit] Passion and Glory), these are all minor distractions, a blip in the core consciousness they’ve developed about all things Haiti over the last several years that has, in the words of director and Robey co-founder Ben Guillory, “become our full-time job.”
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Under Guillory’s intense gaze from the sidelines — literally — the parquet floor becomes a sandy dune, a barroom, a drawing room, or a meeting hall where the black General Henri Christophe maps his strategy for political and personal independence while Haiti rises or falls accordingly. Even in a bare-bones presentation, the story is clearly Shakespearean in the scope of themes laid out in the first act: faith, sacrifice, jealousy, revenge. A group of African drummers beat out an urgent score, and a complement of Greek-chorus Haitian dancers follow their rhythms just as urgently. Even in his most decisive gestures and ringing tones, Karl Calhoun’s Christophe telegraphs an uncertainty at the dawn of the 19th century that will define the country for generations to come. The triumph of being the world’s only black republic, forged by history’s only successful slave revolt, should be obvious; then, and certainly now, it is anything but.
“What does Haiti mean? I’m still trying to figure that out,” muses Guillory, a rangy, imposing man dressed in a sleeveless tank, worn jeans and baseball cap. “But to do that, you’ve got to go back to the beginning. To the colonists, to the colorism, to all that. Did you know that Haiti had 70 different official racial classes?”
Haiti is one of those nuanced, thoroughly complicated black stories that only a company like Robey (named for Paul Robeson) would be foolhardy enough to try to tell in full. Founded in 1994 by Guillory and his friend and fellow actor Danny Glover, Robey aims to mount quality, resonant black theater in the tradition of the New York–based Negro Ensemble Company and of Robeson himself. In the company’s early search for noteworthy material, Guillory came across the work of Simon, a graduate student in the University of Iowa’s playwrights workshop. Simon’s thesis was a trio of plays about the captains of the Haitian Revolution: Toussaint L’Ouverture, and his lieutenants and successors as military commanders and national rulers: Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. The trilogy was developed in Robey’s playwrights’ lab and painstakingly brought to the stage, beginning in 2001 with the first installment, For the Love of Freedom, Part 1: Toussaint (The Soul) Rise and Revolution. There have been budget-busting expenses for detailed sets, costumes, and casts that have numbered in the dozens (Christophe has 37).
Robey is wrapping up its performances of the trilogy in 2004, the bicentennial year of Haiti’s independence. What with rampant poverty, the U.S.-backed coup of President Aristide earlier this year, and the death and destruction wrought by a series of lethal hurricanes last month, the country seems to have little to celebrate. Not so Guillory and company, who can claim satisfaction in a huge artistic mission accomplished, and particular satisfaction in dramatizing the life of Henri Christophe — an unrealized dream of Paul Robeson. Guillory says that for him, getting educated in Haitian history and culture — and recognizing parallels to black history in America — has been worth the experience. “We just wanted to examine what made Toussaint and those guys tick,” says Guillory. “We know the heroic look, the ex-slave who wanted to free the people. But what kind of human beings were they? I’ve read enough history books to know that the people writing the books had agendas, whether they were French or something else. We’re trying to fill in the blanks.”
FOR THE LOVE OF FREEDOM, PART III: Christophe (The Spirit) Passion and Glory | By LEVY “LEE” SIMON | Presented by ROBEY THEATER COMPANY at the LOS ANGELES THEATER CENTER, 514 S. Spring St., downtown | Through October 31 | (818) 981-4141