Last month I had the pleasure of seeing the play, "Roots of Liberty: The Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War" at Tremont Baptist Church here in Boston. The venue was historically significant because this is where the Emancipation Proclamation was publicly read in Boston in 1863. The play was part of "Freedom Rising" a three day series of events to celebrate the commemoration of the 150th year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The play was presented by Underground Railway Theater Company and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. It was written by Natalia Naman (with contributions by Edwidge Danticat). The play included historical speeches and letters such as the well known one in which Louverture uses the phrase upon which the title is based. "In overthrowing me you have only cut down the trunk of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many, and they are deep."
The play relates the intertwined histories of these wars and the special role that the Haitian Revolution occupies in the African-American imagination. The story begins with a high school girl, Cécile (named for Cécile Fatima) assigned to do a report on a historical hero for her American history class and is encouraged by her father to consider writing about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. She chooses Louverture only to be told by her history teacher that he is neither in the textbooks nor on the MCAS which is the state exam for public schools. Determined to prove Toussaint Louverture’s relevance to the US Civil War, Cécile goes on a dream like journey in which historical figures come to life. She encounters Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and eventually Louverture himself.
To be completely honest, I had my reservations about the play before seeing it. Especially after a friend told me about the plan to have Toussaint present as a larger than life puppet in the stage. But my doubts were quickly put to rest almost as soon as I arrived in the theater. The puppet did not look out of place or cartoonish, only like a giant painting. The incorporation of music by Kera Washington, a well known percussionist with years of experience working in Haiti and with Haitian rhythms, and dance by the talented Jean Appolon dance troupe was especially effective and entertaining.
The cast was made up of mostly local actors from the Underground Railway, but at the end Danny Glover made a surprise appearance in the role of Toussaint Louverture. When the pageant/performance concluded, special guest Edwidge Danticat joined Danny Glover on stage for a panel moderated by Henry Louis Gates. This was one of my favorite parts of the event. Danticat was fabulous as always and handled Gates' questions with her characteristic grace, understated brilliance and depth of knowledge. Glover shared about his fascination with Haiti and the long journey to make the film he is producing about the Haitian Revolution.
All in all this was a wonderful event. I was especially glad to be able to attend with my family. My sons, both of whom are named after historic Haitian heroes, were so excited to see the dancing, hear the drumming, and learn more about the Toussaint they had only seen in paintings. Of course my older son wanted to know when Dessalines was going to appear, which unfortunately he did not, so I promised him we would go see another play about the second half of the Haitian Revolution. Any ideas on where to find that?