“Cry Old Kingdom” is playwright Jeff Augustin’s professional debut, an examination of how artists function in times of oppression set in his family’s native Haiti. Directed by Tom Dugdale, “Cry Old Kingdom” is the ambitious story of three individuals searching for a clear pathway through a terrifying political climate. It’s a strong, if slightly uneven, debut from a young playwright with great potential.
Part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, “Cry Old Kingdom” runs through April 7 in the Bingham Theatre.
Under Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s regime, eyes are everywhere, watching and waiting to report any movement that could be interpreted as undermining the authorities. His militia, the Tonton Macoute, carry out brutal assassinations, rapes and torture in his name. Many of the intellectuals and artists have fled the country (or have been jailed or murdered). It is 1964, and Duvalier has rigged a constitutional referendum that has named him “President for Life.”
The play opens with a palpable feeling of urgency—a young man, Henri (Jonathan Majors), gathers wood on the beach quickly, as if he is afraid to be caught. He is, but by sympathetic Edwin (Andy Lucien), whom we learn is “the famous painter” who shares a hometown with the young man.
What’s odd is that Edwin doesn’t seem particularly afraid to be seen, though we learn the rest of the country (and most importantly, the authorities) believe him to be dead, rather than hiding out in a town a few hours from his former home in Port-au-Prince. He’s walking the beach in daylight, almost as if he dares someone to see him and report back to the regime. Edwin offers Henri a deal—Henri can build his boat in his secret basement studio if Edwin can paint him while he works. Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman makes economical use of the Bingham’s small stage through softly-delineated borders of sand and linoleum, a sharply-turned up corner of flooring suggesting the layers of what lives below.
But Edwin keeps Henri a secret from his wife, Judith (Natalie Paul), a former dancer who now toils in an open market while maintaining the outward ruse that Edwin is dead, though he is endangering her as well as himself. It’s unclear how long they think they can keep up this sequestered life—Edwin doesn’t seem to hold out hope that Duvalier’s regime will fall any time soon, which suggests he might be okay to hide out forever, but why a man gives up so easily on his life (and his wife’s) is never addressed.
The play states that when faced with political oppression, a person has three choices: to suffer, to fight or to flee. Henri is bound for U.S. shores, where he believes he’ll find all of the opportunities and freedom Haiti lacks. Judith believes she and other revolutionaries can overthrow Duvalier. Edwin’s a skeptic on all sides—some new regime will always rise, and nothing is easy anywhere—Edwin’s a skeptic on all sides—and so resigned, or doomed, to suffer. Sound designer Benjamin Marcum’s use of the transistor radio adds a chilling touch to the necessary information the audience needs to understand the particular situation the three face over the duration of the play.
Scenes between Henri and Edwin are a joy to watch. Augustin has given them philosophical questions to grapple with in metaphor: “What sort of beast are you?” Edwin asks Henri, who resists being labeled so efficiently, and their poetic use of “eyes” as synecdoche for informants is evocative and effective. The rhythms of their verbal sparring are matched only by Dugdale’s strong staging. Majors is a kinetic beauty, moving with the grace and strength of a young man denied his full abilities for too long, while Lucien’s measured caution provides an effective and mature counterbalance.
Several scenes between Judith and Edwin suffer under too much contrast to Edwin’s relationship with Henri. Slowed down by exposition-hashing, the joyless reminiscing of how they once were and what brought them to the countryside could have been treated in a less direct manner. For a long-term couple who had seen their share of trauma, their dialog felt light on subtext, compared to the charged language shared by the two men. And even at her most exuberant Judith feels stifled. It would have been very effective to show some of her physical potential, if only to know exactly what she’s given up.
After a moving confrontation between the two men, when Edwin’s suffering becomes relatively minor in the face of what Henri has seen and felt, the play moves rapidly away from the theoretical and each character digs down into his or her chosen path. In the savage climax, Edwin reveals “what sort of beast” he is, and we feel the pain of his choice keenly. The denouement is theatrical, poetic and moving, with a beautiful effect by lighting designers Russell H. Champa and Dani Clifford. I wished the entire scene had pushed for more, though—more strangeness in the language to match the startling sky, more disturbance to shock the end of such a rapidly-unraveled dream.