"For the Love of Freedom: Toussaint (The Soul), Rise and Revolution," at the Greenway Court Theatre, offers a dramatic overview of one of the more fascinating episodes in world history.
After the French Revolution in 1789, people of color on San Domingue, or Haiti as it is now known, united to throw off the yoke of slavery. The spark that ignited this rebellion was France's refusal to grant blacks the rights and citizenship guaranteed in its famous "Declaration of the Rights of Man."
Under the leadership of Gen. Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Caribbean conflict raged for 13 years. Toussaint ultimately met with exile and death, but his people won freedom and autonomy, forming the first independent black nation in the Western world.
Playwright Levy Lee Simon undertakes a massively complicated subject in his world premiere play, which clocks in at just under four hours. Considering that this is Part 1 in a trilogy on Haitian history, the sheer scope of the project boggles the mind--and challenges the tailbone.
Even at that seemingly leisurely running time, Simon has had to omit certain historical circumstances to the point of incomprehensibility. Toussaint's alliance with the Spanish--and his subsequent break with them--is dealt with in such a cursory fashion that its significance is largely lost. And when Simon spends a significant portion of Act 3 outlining the sexual exploits of Napoleon's salacious sister, one can't help but feel that his emphasis is misplaced.
Simon casts his net so wide, a few fish necessarily elude him. Though his drama is rough-edged and sprawling, it is nonetheless a hugely ambitious undertaking.
Director Ben Guillory's muscular staging for the Robey Theatre Company and Greenway Arts Alliance is also a tactical feat in itself. There are 30-plus actors in the cast, but congestion is never a problem, thanks to Guillory's logistical expertise and the malleability of Tom Meleck's platform set. Musical director Leon Mobley presides over the driving live percussion that punctuates the evening. The production elements are superb, and the performers, especially M. Darnell Suttles in the title role, bring poignancy and clarity to this unjustly neglected event, a triumph of raw heroism over the colonial status quo.
* "For the Love of Freedom: Toussaint (The Soul), Rise and Revolution," Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; July 7, 2 p.m. $22. (323) 930-9304. Running time: 3 hours, 45 minutes.