Cry Old Kingdom
New City Players Near Ft. Lauderdale
By: Aaron Krause - Apr 22, 2023
What sacrifices would you make for freedom? What about just to survive?
Unfortunately, these questions are more relevant in 21st century America than you may think.
Indeed, with officials banning books and enacting other academic restrictions, it seems that we are headed down a dangerous path. Perhaps it may lead to the kind of government run by Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier of the 1960s.
That time period, place, and regime serve as the setting for the eerily timely theater piece Cry Old Kingdom. It is a meaty and mind-exercising play by Haitian playwright Jeff Augustin. Despite dealing with many themes and ideas, it runs just a little over an hour without an intermission.
The piece is receiving a production that achieves mixed results by the not-for-profit Ft. Lauderdale-area, ensemble-based professional theater company New City Players (NCP). The production runs through April 30 and takes place in Island City Stage’s intimate playing space in Wilton Manors.
In addition to presenting performances, NCP is offering community programs for the public. They deal with the play’s themes and explore Haitian culture and history.
Augustin’s poetic piece touches on themes and topics such as art, revolution, and what hope for a better future can look like. In the play, Edwin is a Haitian artist living under the Duvalier regime. While the piece is not specific, it suggests that Edwin has somehow faked his own death to avoid censorship, arrest, or worse.
Edwin and his wife, Judith, have been hiding in a remote village a couple of hours from the Haitian capital city, Port Au Prince.
Since somehow becoming officially “dead” as far as the regime is concerned, the artist has spent his days mostly out of sight, struggling to finish paintings. One day, Edwin encounters a Haitian peasant building a boat to flee to freedom in Miami. The individual, Henri Marx, artistically inspires Edwin, so the artist makes him a deal. The peasant can safely build the boat in Edwin’s underground studio if he allows Edwin to paint a portrait of him in action.
It sounds like a win-win deal. However, Edwin finds himself trapped between his wife, who dreams of revolution, and Henri Marx, who plans to escape to freedom. Further, with cries for revolution reverberating through the nation and the regime’s death squads stalking citizens, is anyone safe?
Cry Old Kingdom is, at times, intensely dramatic, with Henri Marx seemingly racing to finish building the boat and take off before the Duvalier regime’s henchmen can stop him.
The play is also brimming with conflict. For instance, Edwin must choose between taking his chances with the Haitian revolution’s plan to overthrow Duvalier and escaping with Henri Marx to the land of the free, if the boat doesn’t sink before reaching its destination. But do revolutions accomplish what they intend to? And does America really hold the ticket to freedom and opportunity? The latter question is one we may ask ourselves, especially today.
While you may ponder such questions, the characters do as well. For example, consider the following:
Henri Marx: Today, I want a different kind of life for myself.
Edwin: So you’re going to America to live a dream.
Henri Marx: No, I’m going there to live. It’s not possible to do that here anymore.
Edwin: And it is in America?
Henri Marx: There, I’ll be able to get a job and buy a home. Come in and out of my home whenever I wish. In Miami, people walk around at all times of the night.
Edwin: There’s violence there too.
Henri Marx: Not like here. The government isn’t inflicting it.
Edwin: But it’s about to change here, haven’t you heard? A revolution is brewing.
Henri Marx: I thought you weren’t interested in politics.
Edwin: I’m interested in other people’s politics.
Henri Marx: A revolution won’t change my situation.
Edwin: It’s the people’s revolution. It will change for us all.
Henri Marx: There will always be regimes, some worse, some better. Each one will benefit a particular group. And those who are left out have three choices. They can suffer, fight, or leave – by force or silently.
Edwin: And then there are the immune. Those who can watch and not participate.
Chances are, many of us have read in the news about migrants making the dangerous trek to America by boat or on foot. But, too often, we learn almost nothing about their identities, backgrounds, or dreams. Rather, the migrants become little more than statistics.
Contrastingly, Cry Old Kingdom humanizes a migrant to an extent. For instance, we learn about an incident that took place during Henri Marx’s youth. However, Augustin never tells us what Henri Marx does or did for a living. If he were to make it to America, what, specifically, are his dreams? Audiences might like to know.
We are not even sure if Henri Marx truly cares about his family. At one point, he tells Edwin that his mother cannot be alone at night, so he’d better leave for home to be with her. But then, the artist notes that it will take Henri Marx two days to arrive back home.
“Where will you stay?” Edwin asks him.
“With a friend,” Henri Marx replies. So, he is willing to leave her alone at night?
While Cry Old Kingdom is generally compelling, it has its flaws. For starters, it is hard to believe that, in the beginning of the play, Henri Marx would risk getting caught by building his boat in daylight out in the open. And if Edwin is in hiding, what is he doing out on the beach in daylight?
In addition, Cry Old Kingdom is not always focused; Augustin goes off on small tangents. For example, one character asks another what his favorite futbol team is. The brief discussion that follows about a specific team and its style of play has little to do with the story. Also, discussion about a mysterious elderly woman named Madame Gerald detracts from the play. And while the play ends tragically, it would have been more affecting had we gotten to know the characters more.
From a production standpoint, NCP’s mounting has strengths and weaknesses. For starters, I question director Marlo Rodriguez’s decision to direct the actors to speak without Haitian accents. They sound American. As a result, the play’s authenticity suffers. Also, at times, responses come too fast, robbing the production of spontaneity.
Denzel McCausland injects Edwin with classiness and elegance, but also an easy-going casualness that seems inappropriate for a play with such high stakes. More appropriately, the actor injects his character with intensity when the artist is frustrated. During one scene, Edwin becomes angry with Henri Marx. The painter violently grabs the peasant by his shirt and thunderously shouts at him. By contrast, the actors play a passionate scene between the two men with appropriate wonder. McCausland plays these passionate scenes with intensity without sacrificing naturalness.
Also, McCausland and Odlenika Joseph, as Edwin’s wife, Judith, demonstrate strong chemistry. More specifically, they are believable as a loving couple, and as a bickering couple that has grown apart as of late. The tension between them is as palpable as their feeling of love for each other.
Joseph imbues Judith with a believable passion, such as dreaminess and joyfulness when she thinks about the possibilities that the revolution could bring.
In her multifaceted portrayal, Joseph also conveys credible frustration and anger. In addition, we sense that Judith is longing and aching for connection. Ever since Edwin went into hiding, he has stayed out of the couple’s bed at night and the two are not as physically close as they once were.
Judith’s many hours spent in the hot sun, working in an open market, have taken their toll on the character. Perhaps as a result, she can no longer dance as vibrantly and elegantly she used to. And Joseph makes her character’s weariness and regret palpable.
In a stark contrast from McCausland’s calmness and looseness, T.J. Pursley injects Henri with wariness and anxiety, especially at first. But as Henri gets to know Edwin, he grows calm but no less determined to escape to freedom in America.
In terms of movement, Augustin, in his script, notes that Henri moves with elegance and beauty, yet Pursley does not follow through with this.
Not all of the actors are visible to us. For instance, Harold Petion sounds fervent as the radio voice of revolution leader Jean Louis. And Cloudy Nonome emits a harsh-sounding, arrogant tone as the radio voice of Duvalier.
Under Rodriguez’s direction, we can never question the passion of these characters. They strongly desire something and face formidable obstacles, creating intense drama.
The actors portray these characters on a simple and roomy set. While the production program doesn’t specify a scenic designer, the scenic painter is Kathe O’Donnelly. The boat designer and builder is Enrique Pineros, while other builders are Jordon Armstrong and Jacob Altman.
The set consists of scenic pieces (perhaps Edwin’s paintings) covered with sheets, as well as a colorful quilt. The quilt’s brightness may symbolize the optimism of the Haitian people even in the face of tyranny. Meanwhile, the coverings may reinforce the state of secrecy in which these characters are living.
Seemingly real sound effects from sound designer Ernesto Gonzalez suggest the beach.
Costume designer Edverson Raymonvil’s outfits seem appropriate for the characters. For instance, McCausland wears a white shirt, and the color befits a ghost. That, essentially, is what Edwin is – a walking ghost, dead to just about everybody.
Lighting designer Desiraé Gairala varies the lights’ intensity, creating contrast and focusing the performers. The designer also uses colors wisely.
While the production is uneven, credit NCP for tackling a timely, meaty play packed with thought-provoking material. Undoubtedly, the community programs that the company has planned will augment patrons’ experience.
New City Players’ production of Cry Old Kingdom runs through April 30 at Island City Stage. The address is 2304 N. Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $35 for adults, $30 for seniors 65 and older and $20 for students (under 25 with ID). For Thursday night performances, tickets cost $25 for everybody. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, as well as 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (954) 376-6114 or go to www.newcityplayers.org/season.
In conjunction with the production, the company is hosting weekly post-show talkbacks every Sunday that explore the themes of the play. NCP will also host a free “Forum” event titled “Artists in Resistance.” This program will allow audience members to share dialogue on these issues with local experts on Haitian culture and history. The forum will take place on April 25 at Island City Stage.
A free “City Speaks” storytelling event will encourage audiences to share their own stories inspired by these ideas on May 11 at Perry Wings. Also, a free screening of a short film by Haitian filmmakers will take place on May 9 at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center. In addition, a free NCPLab event for playwrights is scheduled for May 22 on Zoom.