Written By: Christine Dolen
Originally published on artburstmiami.com
Artistic inspiration flows from many sources, including ideas and images created long before younger artists build upon them to fashion something new.
Take “Create Dangerously,” which began as a 1957 speech by Nobel Prize laureate Albert Camus.
When the celebrated Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat was asked to give the second annual Toni Morrison lecture at Princeton University in 2008, inspired by Camus, she delivered a speech titled “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.” In 2010, Danticat published a book with the same title, a work blending memoir, essays and stories about the courage of Haitians at home and in exile.
This week, during Haitian Heritage Month, transformed once more, “Create Dangerously” will claim a place in the world of theater.
After previews on Thursday, May 4 and Friday, May 5, the Miami New Drama play-with-music will open at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 6 in a sold-out world premiere at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road.
Running through Sunday, May 28, the new “Create Dangerously” has been written and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, a former Miamian who most recently staged the Off-Broadway premiere of the musical “White Girl in Danger” by Michael R. Jackson, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama for “A Strange Loop.”
Danticat, who has lived in Miami for more than two decades, is a frequent presence in Miami New Drama’s opening night audiences as well as a fan of the company’s multicultural mission and work.
Blain-Cruz, whose upcoming projects include “Stranger Love” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Candrice Jones’s basketball play “Flex” at New York’s Lincoln Center and the John Adams-Peter Sellars nativity opera-oratorio “El Niño” at the Metropolitan Opera, met Miami New Drama cofounder and artistic director Michel Hausmann when the two had an artistic fellowship at the New York Theatre Workshop.
In the case of the new “Create Dangerously,” Hausmann played artistic matchmaker between Danticat and Blain-Cruz.
“This project has been in the making for years,” says Hausmann. “I came across Edwidge’s work in New York a decade ago . . . and it made such an impact on me. It’s hard to pin down what it is. The language is simple and accessible, so you lower your guard, then it punches you in the gut when you least expect it.”
Blain-Cruz had wanted to do a project based on Danticat’s work – “Lileana and I ‘fangirl’ whenever Edwidge comes in,” he says – and Hausmann received a grant to bring in the director and her creative team from last season’s acclaimed Lincoln Center production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer-winning “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
Hausmann describes the world premiere as “a theatrical event” which will have more in common with the past Miami New Drama shows “Papá Cuatro” and “Viva la Parranda!”
“This is more a folkloric, nontraditional way of storytelling, with music, thoughts, dance, stories and direct address,” he observes.
It is also a piece with multiple shifts in tone and content, from the joyous to the tragic.
The very public 1964 execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, who left the safety of exile in New York to battle the regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, is included as is the 2000 assassination of radio personality and commentator Jean Dominique. So is a family story about an exhausting, hours-long trek up a Haitian mountain for what will likely be the last visit with Danticat’s elderly Tante Ilyana in Beauséjour.
“Just like in writing fiction, you have to have peaks and valleys,” says Danticat.
Miami New Drama’s “Create Dangerously” is billed as a piece written and directed by Blain-Cruz, based on the work of Danticat. In a Zoom conversation, Danticat says she was fine with having Blain-Cruz devise the piece.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to play a role in creating it. I never thought it could be adapted, so it’s a complete surrender. Writing essays or fiction is not the same as writing for theater. I have tried. It’s a whole different craft,” the author says.
Even so, Danticat has observed developmental workshops and some rehearsals, offering feedback on the representation of certain characters in the play. She is among those characters, telling stories or narrating, and at different times the cast takes turns putting on a distinctive pair of glasses to “become” her.
“For me, it’s surreal to be a character. That was not on my Bingo card, ever. But I’m honored to be a part of it with the folks who are in the story,” she says. “The book is not about me. I see it as a book that’s about the brave creators in it. I am sort of a filter, as Lileana is.”
Blain-Cruz says she made Danticat (and briefly herself) characters because she thought, “How do I frame the why of this? She writes from a very personal place . . . I wanted to make sure people didn’t think we were going to do a realistic portrayal of Edwidge. It starts from one person, then opens like a prism to allow the multiplicity of voices.”
The daughter of a Haitian mother and a Puerto Rican father, Blain-Cruz attended Miami’s Immaculata-La Salle High School, then earned degrees from Princeton and Yale.
“Edwidge’s ‘Create Dangerously’ came to me when I was contemplating what it means to be an artist,” she says. “I had been wanting to connect to my mom’s side of the family, and when Michel said we should do something for Miami, I kept coming back to Edwidge’s amazing voice.”
To transform “Create Dangerously” into theater, Blain-Cruz is collaborating with her longtime creative team: scenic designer Adam Rigg, lighting designer Yi Zhao, Tony Award-winning costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, sound designer/composer Palmer Hefferan and projection designer Hannah Wasileski.
For the cast, Blain-Cruz chose a mixture of Miamians and artists based elsewhere: Brittany Bellizeare, Thiana Berrick, dancer Charlene Francois, Edson Jean, Andrea Patterson, Paul Pryce and understudy Sydney Presendieu.
Miamian Edson Jean, who now divides his time between his hometown and Los Angeles where he has a growing career in films and television, says Miami New Drama reached out to him about “Create Dangerously,” and he has enjoyed Blain-Cruz’s collaborative way of working.
“She encourages us to bring who and what we are into the rehearsal room. I play the guitar, and she didn’t have that planned, but it adds another layer,” says Jean, who plays artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Danticat’s cousin Nick and the author’s father. “We’re more like a reflection of what the person was. This is not a narrative or a plot-driven piece; it’s a manifestation of the book.”
Jean adds that he’s still uncertain how Miami’s vast Haitian-American community will respond to the more intense, tragic stories in “Create Dangerously.”
“My mom and auntie respond differently when they hear the name ‘Duvalier.’ Their bodies and emotions change. They were essentially trained as children not to talk about it. When you’re punished just for communicating, when you know if you said anything about Papa Doc you could lose your life, you have layers of trauma,” he says.
Actor Paul Pryce worked with Blain-Cruz when both were in graduate school at Yale, but this is their first professional project together. Born in Trinidad and Tobago to a mother from Martinique and a father from Jamaica, he also has family in France and next month will wed his South Korean finance. Like Blain-Cruz, he feels he brings a global perspective to theater.
“She has a playful, trickster personality. She’s not afraid to reimagine work in a way that’s unconventional,” he says. “Theater can get very serious, important and precious. But Lileana doesn’t allow us to fall into sentimentality.”
Pryce, an actor-filmmaker who has performed in many of William Shakespeare’s plays, has a vividly evocative way of describing “Create Dangerously.”
“It’s not experimental. There are elements that are non-linear, fragmented, movement-driven, and the text is [from the book]. Its unique structural components collage together, almost like a living painting,” he says. “There’s not a forward arc to a resolution in an Aristotelian way, with a beginning, middle and end. It feels continuous, circular. But we do find our connections.”
Hausmann sees “Create Dangerously” as yet another artistic way Miami New Drama is trying to speak to Miami’s diverse communities while illuminating what they have in common.
“In Miami, we live in silos. We’re so diverse, but we’re not blended. You can go all day without speaking a word of English. We don’t share a lot of common spaces,” says Hausmann, who connects with the universality in so many different kinds of theater. “I’ve never been to Haiti. I don’t speak Creole. These characters don’t look like me. But I feel this is talking about me.”
In her book “Create Dangerously,” Danticat writes about the courageous Haitians who read or performed Camus’ “Caligula” in the aftermath of Numa and Drouin’s executions. She makes note of playwright Franck Fouché and poet Felix Morriseau Leroy translating Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone” into Creole and placing the dramas into Haitian settings, “striking a dangerous balance between silence and art.”
In conversation, Danticat celebrates the courage of writers who “reached through the ages to others for inspiration” as well as plausible deniability, a kind of artistic cover given the life-and-death power of brutal regimes.