Imagine happening upon an all-but-lost piece of history.
That opportunity awaits at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, where you’ll find the 1938 play “Haiti,” created under the auspices of the Depression-era arts-funding program the Federal Theatre Project. The Theatricum folks think this is the first time that the drama — about former slaves defeating Napoleon’s forces and securing Haiti’s independence — has been performed since its introduction by the project’s Negro Theatre Unit.
The Theatricum’s wooded amphitheater in Topanga Canyon is a terrific location for this tale about the fight for what the French called Saint-Domingue and the revolutionaries called by the indigenous name Haiti. Shouts and drums reverberate across the hillside as the action progresses from 1802, a decade into the revolution, toward independence in 1804 — and the beginning of the end of slavery in the New World.
We can only imagine how segregated America must have responded to this depiction of black people standing up to oppression. Even New York and Boston would’ve been astonished.
“ ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ — if your skin is white enough,” one of the island’s military leaders sneers early in the tale, echoing the national motto of France and Haiti.
It’s the best line in the play, which William DuBois — not to be confused with sociologist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois — structured as a melodrama. We could use more like it since, while revolution roils outside, we’re stuck in the salon of a former plantation house listening to strategizing and boasting. It’s a long time until the action breaks into a sword fight, then a superhuman one-man-against-many showdown.
The line is spoken by the dashing Gen. Henri Christophe (played by Max Lawrence), who is sometimes rash but unerringly ideal-driven. The French side has a hero too: Capt. Michel Duval (Dane Oliver), who disapproves of what he’s been sent to do but remains resolutely honor-bound.
The greatest hero of all, though, is Jaqueline (Earnestine Phillips), a gender flip of a character named Jacques in the script. Once a slave on this plantation, she was impregnated by its master. Her daughter, Odette (Tiffany Coty), was raised in Europe and is now returning as wife to the villainous Col. Boucher (Jeff Wiesen). Jaqueline presents herself to the French as their servant and thereby becomes a spy in their command post while also being close to the daughter who doesn’t realize the family tie.
Director Ellen Geer marvelously deploys a cast of 20, keeping the story moving and emotions running high.
Among those emotions: Odette and Duval are an item, a mixed-race romance that was daring when “Haiti” made its debut. So was the decision back then to have the cast take its bows with black and white cast members alternating in line and linking hands.
The world has changed in many ways since then. But “Haiti” reminds us not to be complacent. When racism is involved, there’s bound to be struggle ahead.
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Where: Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga
When: In repertory each weekend; see website for details; ends Sept. 29
Info: (310) 455-3723, www.theatricum.com
Running time: 2 hours