“A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.
A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.
A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.”
—Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism,” translated by Joan Pinkman for publication in the Monthly Review Press (1972); originally published in French as “Discours sur le colonialisme” (1955)
In a world like ours so wrought with chaos and war, what happens when freedom is achieved? That is something that the play “The Tragedy of King Christophe” attempts to answer. “A friend introduced me to this play because they knew that I was born in Haiti,” says show director and artistic director of the House Theatre of Chicago Lanise Antoine Shelley. “There are few plays out there that are based in Haiti and written by an actual West Indian, so it immediately sparked my interest. It was doubly intriguing because of its heightened language. During my research, I’ve become more and more enthralled with Aimé Césaire’s work. I even directed a reading of Césaire’s ‘A Tempest’ at the off-Broadway Red Bull Theater.” (The reading was live in New York on February 28 with a streaming version.)
Set after the Haitian Revolution in 1804, when Haiti became the first Black-led republic, the play shows Henri Christophe’s rise as the elected leader turned self-proclaimed king of Haiti until 1820. Christophe is a historical figure who climbed the ranks from that of a slave until his eventual role as a general in Toussaint Louverture’s army. The play represents both the celebration of freedom while recognizing how power changes dynamics. Césaire originally wrote the play in French, but the version used by House Theatre is a translation by Paul Breslin and Rachel Ney.
While the oppressive situation happening in Ukraine by Russia might make this show have more impact, Shelley is hopeful that current events won’t change the audience reception of “King Christophe.” “’The Tragedy of King Christophe’ is about the aftermath of the Haitian revolution, so there isn’t any real fighting,” she says. “We actually start the play in celebration of the newfound liberty. This play unfolds after twelve years of fighting. I’m interested in what happens when we cease the conflict, rebuild and reimagine the future.”
The deeper meanings of Césaire’s work are on the agenda for “A Day with Aimé Césaire: Panel & Performance” set for May 7. Though Césaire is no longer with us, the panel will be led by scholars, translators, a cultural anthropologist and Haitian artists to explore the “depth and complexity” of the writer’s work. Panelists include the play’s translators, Jean Appolon, James Arnold, and Dr. Reginald Dewight Patterson with Shelley as the moderator.
Given that the title has “tragedy” in its name, it’s no great surprise that the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Even so, Shelley sees the point of the performance within the journey on stage. “This show illuminates the first and only King of Haiti with gorgeous movement and dance,” she says. “We have a West Indian Cultural anthropologist, Haitian linguistic consultant, and both of the translators working fervently on this project.” She adds that the show provides a “powerful message of community, hope, and pride in one’s heritage.”
House Theatre’s “The Tragedy of King Christophe” at Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division runs April 22 to May 29. Tickets, $20-$50, at thehousetheatre.com.
“A Day with Aimé Césaire: Panel and Performance,” Saturday, May 7, 2pm at The Poetry Foundation, 61 West Superior, thehousetheatre.com/cesaire-panel.