Haitian Troupe Acts Out Nation's Anxieties

The ongoing turmoil in Haiti inspired a local playwright to pen a street production that captures — via life-size puppets — the day-to-day violence and fear of living in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

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Haiti is preparing for national elections in two months. Some residents say these elections promise a better future, although that is not the story being acted out by a group of life-size puppets in the chaotic capital city. What you're about to hear is a kind of theater review that amounts to a report on what's really happening. Amelia Shaw reports from a troubled neighborhood in Port-au-Prince.

AMELIA SHAW reporting:

In a small dark theater on an abandoned street in Port-au-Prince, a lamp sparks to life, illuminating a big red papier-mache bus, parked at a stop named Kilometer Zero. Women in kerchiefs, boys selling water and men yelling into cell phones collide with life-sized puppets in a frenzy to get on board.

(Soundbite of voices)

SHAW: The bus blocks the road, and the driver won't move until he is paid. While violent arguments break out over money, a thief comes, robs everybody and shoots out the tires of the bus. Then, it begins to rain, flooding the street.

Ernst St. Rome is director of the artists' cooperative, COPART. He says this scene describes a day in the life of Haiti's urban poor.

Mr. ERNST ST. ROME (Director, COPART): (Through Translator) I live in Carfu(ph). You know that road is crowded. One day, when it was raining, I got on a bus at 5 AM, and at 10 AM, I'm still on that road. I am stuck in a stuffy bus with people sitting on top of me, sweating, passing gas. There's this loud, booming music. It's been like this for hours, and I'm going crazy. It reminded me of being in the hold of a slave ship, and it suddenly hit me I need to do a play about this.

SHAW: The troupe survives by making do with what it can find on the street.

(Soundbite of clattering)

SHAW: Ernst rummages through a pile of junk, picking through pieces of car engines, old wrenches, bicycle bells and rusty sprigs.

Mr. ST. ROME: (Through Translator) We're going to use these to create the noises of the city.

SHAW: The troupe rehearses and performs in Bel Air, one of Port-au-Prince's most violent slums. In the past year, gangs based in Bel Air have paralyzed the city. Gun battles and kidnappings have forced many families to flee. Businesses have boarded up their windows and garbage piles high in the streets. Yet even though guerrilla warfare consumes the neighborhood, COPART keeps rehearsing.

Mr. ST. ROME: (Through Translator) For a while, no one could come here because of all the shooting. Some of our actors fled, so we had to go door to door to see who was still here, and take on new people who know nothing about theater but who live this every day.

SHAW: Ernst says the play's meant to be performed on the street, but there's still too much violence. He hopes one day to perform on the original site of Kilometer Zero on the edge of Bel Air. The site was once marked with a bronze plaque and was used to measure distances between Port-au-Prince and Haiti's major cities. But in the last coup d'etat, the plaque was stolen.

For actor Peterson d'Essauline(ph), this was a blow to Haitian identity.

Mr. PETERSON d'ESSAULINE (Actor): (Through Translator) When they stole the Kilometer Zero plaque, it was like taking a piece of our cultural memory. We're trying to keep that memory intact.

SHAW: As Haiti prepares for upcoming presidential elections, the signs of the future cover the city, in campaign posters, graffiti and political rallies in the streets. But many Haitians doubt the elections will take place as scheduled. The election date has already been postponed four times due to logistical problems. For Ernst, the elections are just another drama without a happy ending.

Mr. ST. ROME: (Through Translator) They tell us we need a new election, another new election. They keep saying `This is it.' But it's just one more beginning. Did we ever resolve any of the problems? No.

SHAW: COPART's artistic director, Nicole Martinez, explains.

Ms. NICOLE MARTINEZ (Artistic Director, COPART): It's like we as Haitians are forever stuck in the same place and we can't get the engine started.

SHAW: When the play ends, the floodwaters are rising and the passengers are sitting in the bus in growing despair. Ernst says the ending is just like life, and at the moment, neither he nor the play has any clue as to how to get off Kilometer Zero.

For NPR News, I'm Amelia Shaw in Port-au-Prince.

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