The term restavek (from the French: rester avec, or “to stay with”) refers to a child from a poor family who is sent to live with a more financially secure one. In exchange for room-and-board and access to schooling, the child is expected to help with household chores. If you are’t well-informed about Haitian social strata and don’t know what a restavek is, Jeff Augustin’s The Last Tiger in Haiti explains it indirectly, without giving much context — although there is a comprehensive explanatory essay in the program that’ll fill in the blanks.
Augustin’s play relies upon an unreliable narrator to dramatize the art of storytelling. Augustin introduces Rose (Brittany Bellizeare) as a child playacting with her doll. In effect, she is holding a compliant audience in the palms of her hands. The doll can’t talk back or question the veracity of what she says. Nor can the audience. But Rose is not dawdling alone in a comfortable suburban bedroom. She’s a restavek sharing a rusted out shack with other children somewhere in Haiti. Last Tiger presents a Dickensian view of five restaveks living together. They’re not servants or an extended part of the household. Essentially, they’re slaves, unpaid and, in this case, suffering from the whims of an abusive master.
In order to cope with the traumas of their daily lives, the five children tell bedtime stories to each other. Rose is the youngest of the group. Max (Andy Lucien) is her closest friend, a surrogate older brother to her and an alpha male to the rest. The play takes place during Carnival which lends a surreal flourish to the first act. Emmanuel (Clinton Roane), Joseph (Reggie D. White), and later Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair), enter the shack costumed in fantastic masks and beads. Of the three, it’s Joseph’s horns, long as a kudu’s, that make an impression. The boy has devilish rages, and he directs them right at Rose. We learn why he does, but not until the second act, which takes place years later in Florida.
[Spoiler below the pic]
Rose, it turns out, was not a real restavek: She was the master’s daughter. Several things remained unclear after this revelation. Was she then illegitimate? Is that why she wasn’t living in the main household? Or was she just an occasional visitor to the shared living space? When Max confronts the adult Rose at her plush American apartment, he fills the audience in on certain details that may contradict some of what we saw in the first half of the play. Rose is now a successful writer, and it’s her version of events we’ve seen in Act One.
Act Two is an extended confrontation between Max and Rose about narrative ownership. How much of Rose’s book is invented? Did she honor the other children’s stories in her version? After all these years apart, Max tracks her down for a retraction. He wants a taped confession to confirm the fact that her work is fiction, and not memoir. Rose laughs at him, at his naivety. To whom would it matter besides himself?
But that’s the only thing that does matter to Max. To escape from his indentured life in Haiti, he prostituted himself. (This information comes out in a funny, sharply written exchange about the coppery taste of a man’s asshole.) Not only does he want to reclaim his self-respect, but he feels the half-truths Rose has told dishonor him, and the memories of their companions. The other characters then start to appear on set as background apparitions while Max tells us about their unhappy fates.
At the end of Act One, Rose stands up, changing her posture and her costume, addressing the audience in a newly found American accent. This is the confident woman she’ll become in Act Two. Her sudden transformation is meant to function as a bridge between the acts, as it links Rose’s depiction of events to the attempt at redemptive truth in Act Two. But when all the stories are finally told, it doesn’t feel as if Rose has ever had anything to lose by her encounter with the past. Augustin doesn’t make Rose suffer any particular consequences for the damaging lie she wrote about Max. And then it’s not clear that Max will heal after telling these truths, if that’s what the playwright’s goal was for him in the first place.
Throughout the play, there are moments of intense emotional strife and suffering by each one of the characters. The crucial bits of characterization, though, the ones that add up incrementally to affect an audience seem to be living outside of the narrative structure, or aren’t told by the characters who experience them. Rose briefly mentions to Max that she lived with an adoptive family. When and where exactly did that happen? Is that how she left Haiti? The through line of the current draft feels abbreviated; some of the wrong things have been edited out.
Additionally, the host of Haitian accents, while all bravely attempted, felt unnecessarily restrictive. After The Last Tiger in Haiti ended, Lucien addressed the crowd in his own voice. Without the accent, he made a plea for donations to Haiti’s victims of Hurricane Matthew. Lucien’s deep voice resonated with empathy. His Haitian accent, similar to the ones used by his co-stars, disguised rather than enhanced his natural charisma. As he talked about the devastating effects of the storm, Lucien, like Rose with her doll, held the hushed audience in his hands.
The Last Tiger in Haiti, through Nov. 27, at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949.