The impossible choices and profound sacrifices—whether artist, activist or peasant—required to survive a dictatorial government are at the heart of Jeff Augustin’s “Cry Old Kingdom,” a lyrical and stark three-character drama running now from New City Players at Island City Stage.
We’re in Haiti, 1964, an Orwellian prison where firearms are easier to obtain than ice cream, and where “Papa Doc” Duvalier lords with an iron fist and views his citizenry through the all-seeing eyes of his ubiquitous secret police. Those who protest against the government, or even speak about Papa Doc in less than reverential terms, are met with draconian punishments, many of them fatal.
Augustin presents three characters managing this dystopia in their own way. Edwin (Denzel McCausland) is an artist—the enemy of most police states—who is presumed dead and lives anonymously, painting in his underground studio. He is creatively uninspired, politically jaded, and essentially resigned to Haiti’s status quo. By contrast, his wife Judith (Odlenika Joseph), the breadwinner of the marriage, vends at her local market by day while stoking the fires of revolution at night. She has begun following a dissident leader with plans to protest the regime.
They live together but barely sleep together, even in the literal definition of the term. Riven by both the personal and the political, their relationship has disintegrated into a passionless husk. But something of a spark ignites in Edwin when he meets Henri (TJ Pursley), an idealistic youth collecting driftwood on the beach to build a boat and flee to the United States. Edwin allows Henri to build his vessel in his studio in exchange for the permission to paint him. Henri’s tragic backstory eventually unfurls as the two men engage in debate and fellowship about art, opportunity and trauma, ultimately forcing the hand of the noncommittal Edwin.
New City Players has produced a great-sounding play, washing its audience in a sound bath of totalitarian Haiti, from news reports crackling through an old radio to waves lapping against a shoreline to an ominous series of percussive thumps that mirror the sounds that keep Judith up at night. But beyond this handsome audio imaginarium, the production falls short of its potential. With its poetical language and complex characters, “Cry Old Kingdom” thrives on nuance and a certain unspoken smolder that New City Players’ production fails to capture.
The crux of these shortcomings is the interplay between McCausland and Joseph. We never really see the passion and determination that McCausland harbors for art; his Edwin presents merely as a meek figure cowed by his wife, his downbeat delivery often failing to align with his dialogue. Joseph is on the opposite spectrum, performing as if she’s in a telenovela: One moment she’s warmly reminiscing about a better time in their marriage; the next she’s a fount of resentfulness and indignation. Her delivery, too, is wildly inconsistent with the text. She erupts so many times, with virtually no apparent rationale, that her anger loses its dramatic potency. The actors are on parallel channels, seldom meeting. Whether this was somewhat intentional or not from director Marlo Vashti Rodriguez, it doesn’t work.
Only Pursley, as Henri, seems to be fully in sync with the text. We feel in our bones both his wariness at the world and the light he keeps under his bushel, coming across—and this is a compliment—as a lost puppy you want to keep under your wing.
But even in the interactions between Pursley and McCausland, there’s something missing, namely a romantic tension that would better explain Edwin’s accelerated retreat from Judith’s advances. This production is like a love triangle in which the various points drift in space, failing to connect.
“Cry Old Kingdom” goes to some incredibly dark places that, given these disconnections, do not resonate on a deep emotional level. But I laud New City Players for taking on the challenge, and for recognizing the vast population of South Florida Haitian-Americans who seldom see their stories told.
“Cry Old Kingdom” runs through April 30 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Tickets run $20-$35. Call 954/376-6114 or visit newcityplayers.org.