Jeff Augustin’s The Last Tiger in Haiti takes place on the final night of Kanaval. A group of restaveks (abandoned children living in servitude) dream of freedom, trading spellbinding tales blurring fiction and reality. When two of them reunite 15 years later, their truths are more haunting than they could have imagined.
LWT: What was the inspiration for The Last Tiger in Haiti?
Augustin: I am Haitian-American and I am the youngest of seven. Me and my sister, the youngest, were the only ones born here. The rest of my family were born in Haiti. For various reasons as a kid I felt I had to grow up very early. I became interested in how kids who were abused cope. How they heal themselves. I felt like when I was a kid a lot of that was my imagination, how I told stories and how I created worlds around me with the stories I created. I had read a story in The New York Times about the restavek children, and the inspiration for the play came from that and the tradition of oral storytelling, krik-krak.
When I was finishing the play, I was having my New York debut and one of the things that terrified me more than the critics, was other Haitians seeing the play. I wanted to make sure I got the story right. I grew up in a Haitian household and very much in the Haitian culture but what right do I have to these kinds of stories? So when the second act begins to unfold, it is about who has what right to what narrative and how do we shape our own narrative.
LWT: Are these themes you revisit in other parts of your work? What gets you going as a writer?
Augustin: I write a lot about Haitian, and Haitian-American culture and experiences. I do think a lot of my work has characters trying to deal with change and recreating themselves. I am always interested in the magic of the every day. I gravitate a lot towards myths. So much of the stories in Haitian culture take on an other-worldliness. There is a mysticism I am fascinated by. I think ultimately for me a play is so rooted in character and in a deep exploration of some anxiety or some kind of need to find something inside themselves that they have been afraid of or repressing.
My family, especially my mom, is an inspiration for me. As a kid, family time was her lighting candles and telling stories. I love Jose Rivera – I love magical realism. Lately the kind of structural things that always fascinate me – I always find something that is impossible to stage.
LWT: It had to have been powerful as a kid listening to these stories told by candlelight … that had to have been completely formative for The Last Tiger in Haiti.
Augustin: There is something about night and candle light where everything seems possible. As a kid, there were scary things out there, but the possibility was so much can come out of there. It felt like we were entering a different space. It prompted my interest in this piece, but it is also why I like the theatre. The lights come down in this dark space, together waiting for something.
LWT: Last Tiger will have some productions this year, is that correct?
Augustin: We just closed at La Jolla Playhouse a week ago and we are headed to Berkeley Rep in the Fall. It went really well at La Jolla. We learned a lot about that play. It was extraordinary. We actually had a restavek survivor come and see the show. She was quite moved that we captured a lot of what it was like, at least what her experience was like. It was a really good run and we are already talking about the changes we are going to make at Berkeley. It’s really exciting.
LWT: What’s next for you?
Augustin: I am working on an immersive theatre food project with four playwrights and a chef, Carla Hall. It should be really fascinating. I am currently working on a couple of commissions for the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Actors Theatre of Louisville. I have a kind of a packed plate.