Soyica D. Colbert
Derek Walcott, Ti-Jean and His Brothers. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Central Square Theater, Cambridge, Mass.; 3 March 2011.
The Underground Railway Theater and Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University production of Noble Prize winner Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean and His Brothers takes the viewer on a journey to a place and time where animals talk, spirits negotiate with the living, and a murdered child comes back to life. The play, which takes place somewhere in the Caribbean, has been produced several times since 1957, when Walcott wrote the play over three days in a New York City hotel room. The lack of geographical specificity leaves the play open to several different interpretations.
The 2011 production of Ti-Jean and His Brothers commemorates the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. As the play opens, broken musical instruments litter the stage. When the actors first enter, they pick up the broken pieces of the instruments and set them on a makeshift memorial. Cricket, Frog, Firefly, and Bird are the first characters to enter and the ones who clear the broken instruments from the ground. The ritualistic movement of animals and insects raises the questions What happened? and Why must the animals and insects respond? While the play does not name the traumatic event that occurred, it does emphasize the need for an interconnected response among the animals, humans, and spirits. In a talkback that followed the play, Régine Jean-Charles, a scholar of francophone African and Caribbean literatures and cultures at Boston College, suggested that the play questions how one creates culture “in the midst of disaster.” Indeed, how does one dare to innovate in the midst of rubble? And who bears the burden of audacious imagining that such innovation requires? Offering the artist and the play as an answer, Walcott’s dramatic fable demonstrates the healing power of drama resides in its bold ability to imagine a world of beauty in the midst of wreckage, poverty, and destruction.
Given the commemorative framing of the production, Walcott’s play about three brothers who fight the devil in hopes of improving their impoverished situation calls to mind the ongoing struggle Haiti faces against seemingly supernatural forces. The Caribbean family in the midst of crisis that the play depicts is willing to do anything to free themselves of their dire economic condition: the play begins with an opportunity of sorts. The devil’s servant Bolom (Kateryne Nelson-Guerrero) makes a deal with the brothers on behalf of the devil, making the brothers a promise: “If anyone on earth / Anyone human / Can make [the devil] feel anger, / Rage, and human weakness, / He will reward them . . . / With a shower of sovereigns, / You shall never more know hunger, / But fulfillment, wealth, peace.” But if anyone fails to make the devil feel human, he will die an unpleasant death, being immediately devoured.
The geographic reference to Haiti in the commerative framing of the production with the supernatural plot of the play may draw to mind a culturally damaging belief about Haiti that Evangelical preacher Pat Robertson articulated recently, claiming Haiti has struggled as nation due to a pact made with the devil to gain independence. Although rebuilding in Haiti requires a herculean effort, the play uses the devil as a metaphor, which the devil’s dual role as planter and devil most clearly demonstrates. Therefore, the play aims to depict epic human battles against slavery and colonialism that situate the slave master and the colonialist as the devil. While Walcott wrote a trilogy of plays about Haiti specifically, as a fable Ti-Jean and His Brothers explores systems of domination that plague the Caribbean as a whole and that have particular resonance in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Three-little-pigs-style, the play depicts each brother’s attempt to defeat evil. Gros Jean (Hampton Sterling Fluker), the oldest and physically strongest of the three, tries to defeat the devil with pure might. But ultimately the devil feasts on Gros Jean as a delicious first course. The second son, Mi-Jean (Cedric Lilly), makes up in intellect for what he lacks in physical strength. Unfortunately, he relies solely on the knowledge he can glean from a book. No match for the wily maneuverings of his foe, Mi-Jean makes a delectable yet unsatisfying second course. In order for the devil to satiate his hunger he seeks out his third and final course, appearing before the youngest brother, Ti-Jean (Kervin George Germain).
Each time the devil appears before one of the brothers he takes on the persona of a planter. Several members of the cast play the role of the devil. In order to bring some cohesion to the character, explains Ramona Lisa Alexander, the actress who plays the frog throughout most of the play and the devil/planter in the final scene, the character “went through several changes until [the cast] developed a standard sound for the devil/planter.” The distinctive American accent of the planter stands out in relation to the West Indian accents of the other characters. Once again suggesting a particular historical context, the use of accents calls to mind the vexed relationship between the United States and Haiti since the first black republic declared independence.
Initially in the interaction with Ti-Jean, the planter (Ramona Lisa Alexander) appears meek and subdued. Not easily fooled, Ti-Jean quickly recognizes the beleaguered planter as the devil and antagonizes him, knocking over the sticks he carries and pointing out his tail. Through several interactions, Ti-Jean the trickster mirthfully provokes the devil to feel human emotion. Alisa Braithwaite, a scholar of Caribbean literature at MIT, suggests that Ti-Jean’s ability to beat the devil at his own game by finding loopholes in the system might be interpreted as a metaphor for the Caribbean literary tradition: the brothers represent three generations of Caribbean writers, associating Gros Jean with writers responding to slavery and Mi-Jean with the formally conservative writing of Walcott’s generation. “The latest generation of writers, including Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz,” she explained at the talkback, “are disrupting the way we see literature, similar to the way Ti-Jean foils all of the devil’s plans.” I would not put the prescient vision Braithwaite ascribes to Walcott’s mid-century play past him, especially considering how the 2011 production relates the play to the ongoing disaster in Haiti.
Nearing the end of the play, the planter instructs Ti-Jean to count all the leaves of the cane plants on the farm. Far too lazy to engage in such a task, Ti-Jean impersonates an overseer and instructs the field workers to burn the fields to the ground. Making a connection between political action and artistic practice, Ti-Jean’s instruction promises the possibilities of freedom for the workers and inspires them to sing and dance with joy around the palmetto tree that stands in the center of the stage throughout the play. As the workers dance along with Ti-Jean, they throw their fists in the air in jubilation. The spirited dance calls attention to one of many potent symbols of Haiti incorporated in the stage set that includes syncretic imagery and a tarp that recalls the post-earthquake tent cities. The palmetto tree featured on the Haitian flag symbolizes strength and serves as a central pillar of the culture. The play celebrates in song and dance the resiliency of culture, even in the midst of great loss. When the devil realizes that Ti-Jean burned his crops to the ground and outsmarted him, he acknowledges his mortal foe as the victor and fulfills his promise of sovereigns. Although the devil warns Ti-Jean at the end of the play that their battle will continue, through the collectivity that the production creates on stage and in the theater the daring drama offers art as a source of healing after a storm.
Soyica Colbert is an assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College. Her first book, The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance and the Stage, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, November 2011. Her research interests span the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from William Wells Brown to Beyoncé, and from poetics to performance.