Review: Savagery is softened by storytelling in Berkeley Rep’s ‘The Last Tiger in Haiti’

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(l to r) Clinton Roane (Emmanuel), Reggie D. White (Joseph), Brittany Bellizeare (Rose), Jasmine St. Clair (Laurie), and Andy Lucien (Max) share laughs through their rough circumstances in “The Last Tiger in Haiti” at Berkeley Rep. (Photo by Jim Carmody)

There are many powerful moments in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Last Tiger in Haiti,” but few are more riveting than the moment where the eldest caretaker Max comes back from a bathroom run, now coated in warm, shiny blood.

It is a moment of piercing intensity, where the stories being told take a backseat to the horror story that the children are living, “restaveks” who live in abject poverty, serving the entitled few hand over foot, all the while enduring vicious and vulgar conditions. A child yearns for love? More like painful abuse. Running water or a toilet? More like a hole in the ground and a ten-minute time limit.

While Joshua Kahan Brody’s direction of Jeff Augustin’s compelling script has a few drawbacks, namely some line swallowing and dialect that darts here and there at times, the story has two very distinct acts. The first is set in an impoverished shanty of Port au Prince, Haiti where five children escape their lives of servitude and slavery with their imaginations.

While the children have very little in the form of comforts such as running water and a flushing toilet, the one thing they do have is those stories. While that might not seem like much of a consolation in our materialistic world of cell phones and Ipads, for these five children, as young as 11, it is everything.

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Rose (Bellizeare) is protected by Max (Lucien) throughout their time together as indentured servant children in Haiti. (Photo by Jim Carmody)

Max (a fiery and pathos-fueled Andy Lucien) is just moments away from receiving his freedom in the form of his release, a debt now paid with his 18 years of life. Which is obviously great for him, but not so great for his 11-year-old loving shadow, Rose (a rangy Brittany Bellizeare). She follows him around with reverence, a piggyback ride from him never far away. He’s her protector, a role he fills with aplomb.

The cost to the children in this life, including Emmanuel (Clinton Roane), Joseph (Reggie D. White) and Laurie (Jasmine St. Clair) is significant. There are routine rounds of abuse, sexual, physical and many other types, with the children having no choice but to find ways to accept the fact that maybe, just maybe, their lives aren’t so bad. What is striking is that for children who are discarded by their parents, they still cling to stitches of idealism.

The story is set in one of their more idealistic locales, on the final night of the Carnival festivities. They pull up some nice, soft dirt floor and spin yarns. But in order to start, one has to say “Krik,” while another has to counter with “Krak.” The stories are then set in motion.

Their joy doesn’t last long. There is a new fear that drills them in their souls, with a drunken master just on the other side of the paper thin walls, possibly preparing for a sickening tryst with one of the young boys. But then again, maybe this is the night where the master, in a fit of rage, ends one of the children’s lives.

The proceedings are riveting, carried forth by the five ensemble actors that find passionate motivations in each of their intentions. Their stories may have different disturbing bents, but there are also moments of great levity and wonderful allegory.

Act two moves into a whole other set of challenges, this time taking place in a chic apartment in Miami, a city that is a haven for Haitian refugees. It is here that some of the best acting takes place, with the now very famous Rose, she of the very lucrative book deal, and Max, who start to converse awkwardly, but have much to discuss. And not much of it good. Does Rose have the right to profit off the backs of her mates? But isn’t she bringing attention to the restaveks? It’s complicated stuff, with all of the characters showing that their wounds are still very fresh.

This act is fierce. Many powerful discoveries are made, and the audience is now privy to what became of the Max and the others. There are serious twists and turns, secrets revealed, with the words led with visceral passion by both Lucien and Bellizeare.

As the story unfolds, what comes through beautifully on Takeshi Kata’s mesmerizing set is the passion of each actor. The cast seems genuinely thrilled to tell this story and bringing attention to Haiti, a country that was in abject poverty even before a 2010 earthquake further ravished their homeland. And while the characters use stories to escape their reality, the audience is able to take in a story that brings us into the character’s world. It’s not always pretty, not always comfortable. But it is a reminder of the power of storytelling, and how those stories have the power to transport these children from the savagery of reality into a world that’s always full of oranges and parsley.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse, presents “The Last Tiger in Haiti”
Written by Jeff Augustin
Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody
Running time: 100 minutes, one intermission
The Word: A powerful tribute to the power of storytelling.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through Nov. 27th
Peet’s Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $29 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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