In October of 2012, I visited Haïti. On May 10, 2013, Haïti visited me.
The third annual “Hope and A Future” celebration of music, dance and spoken word, presented by Community2Community (C2C), brought Haïti home to hundreds of Brooklyn residents who sang their country’s songs dressed in native garb, feasted on pikliz and other delicacies, and browsed painted tapestries, hand-crafted sandals and colorful jewelry from their homeland in a new addition to the event this year— the Ayiti Marché (Haïtian marketplace).
The location of this year’s event, the Christian Cultural Center (CCC), had special meaning for me, having been born and raised just blocks away in Canarsie, Brooklyn. My own nostalgia felt akin to what many in the room must have experienced as they saw their country come alive in a tent on Flatlands Avenue. In his opening remarks, Councilman Jumaane Williams thanked Haïti for “doubling the size of America” and offered this thought-provoking question “What would Brooklyn be like without the Haïtian community?”
The other defining aspect of this year’s event was the production itself. Originally presented as a benefit concert produced by Elona Dotson of Psalmist Productions in January 2011 and 2012 to commemorate the January 2010 earthquake in Haïti, this year’s event was moved to May, now launched by C2C as Haïtian Heritage Month. A new vision was cast by C2C and with it, a new name to reflect it. The 2013 “Hope and A Future” A Celebration of Haïti, is a collaborative effort between the C2C events and CCC performing arts and production teams. “The goal this year,” said C2C CEO + FireStarter Marie-Yolaine Eusebe, “was to offer the audience an opportunity to be a part of something greater than themselves by moving from being spectators to being participants with C2C in work of projects on the ground.” How to bring the work of a joint team of Haïtian and American visionaries to a stage 1,500 miles away? This year, there was a storyline…
An American reporter finds himself in Haïti to “get a story” but what he uncovers while there rips far beyond any headline he could write and changes his view of the world and himself forever. A bit lofty? Not at all, and I speak from experience.
I wasn’t working for a magazine when I traveled to Haïti with C2C in October 2012 but I saw what our reporter saw first-hand— in the faces of the women I met carrying tubs of water and household goods on their head to bring back to their families, climbing miles each way, every day in the process. Like our reporter, I thought it would make for a good “story.” And at this year’s “Hope and A Future” celebration, I was reminded of just how much that trip had changed me.
Our reporter, David West, played with understated elegance by Mischa Field, a CCC minister, thinks it’s just another day’s work for him until he comes upon a young Haïtian girl named Ketlee, played by Roslyn Sylvain, who shows him the lay of the land. In the end, she shows him much more about himself and what’s really important in life.
What the reporter learns is most important, is water. Water brings life. He learns this when he travels with Ketlee on her daily hike up and over and down the mountains to find water to bring back to her sick mother. Along the way, they encounter Thirsty Man, played by Pascal Pierre, who begs for the water in tattered clothes. Our reporter feels compelled to oblige, but Ketlee pulls back, saying her mama needs it more.
As their travels continue, we find that the one who needs it the most is a little girl named Solèy (Kreyòl for sunlight), but our heroes don’t reach her in time. Solèy’s mother, played by vocalist Melanie Charles, cries over the lifeless body of her child. In a song composed especially for the production, “Artibonite” (the location of the first reported incident of cholera in Haiti), she laments, “When I arrived I found Solèy had died” in Kreyòl; her words translated to English on three screens, ensuring both English and Kreyòl-speaking guests could take in the potent message.
Solèy’s plight is made even more profound by the dance number choreographed by Jessica Lynch of Francine Ott’s The Walk dance troupe, in which six dancers move and strive in an effort to cling to life, the haunting sounds of the saxophone from the jazz band Mozayik rising with each grasp to symbolize how many needless deaths from cholera this country has endured. Words, music and movement converged to surround Solèy’s body and comfort her family and community while our reporter, and the audience, looked on helplessly.
Experiences like this caused our reporter to empathize with Ketlee and her plight. Seeing the magnificent beauty of the country for the first time, he told her, “To look at it, I would never imagine the problems people have here,” and, upon seeing how adept she is at traipsing up and down the mountains in the heat, he huffs and puffs through the line, “If I had a million dollars, I would give it to Haïti.” Ketlee is unfazed as she tells him, “Today is only 90 degrees!”
Another memorable line, greeted with much applause, was spoken by one of Ketlee’s neighbors Gislaine, played by With Lacroix: “We should not pay people to come here to do the work that we can do.” One line that encapsulates the mission of C2C—working with the community to help the community.
Mr. Field’s performance as the reporter took a startling turn when he unexpectedly broke into a solo rap/spoken-word piece in which he doubts his own reasons for being there— “the hypocrisy of the press covering” the earthquake. The reality, he agonizes, is that “every day they get up and search for life” and it hits him how petty his own desires are compared to Ketlee’s. “The neglect to hydrate the dreams of a reporter mean nothing compared to real dreams.” He is humbled by his “coffee-fueled schedule” compared to the life of a young girl in Haïti who walks miles each day for water. By the end of his piece, he is “transformed, awakened” and “can’t erase what he’s seen.” For him, it’s no longer about the story.
His sentiments mirror my own having experienced the real Haïti in October, then seeing it again on the CCC stage Friday night. Watching the video footage that played during the show, much of it filmed during our trip, only served to bridge the gap between here and there even more. Seeing places I had walked through in Haïti in the video at the same time replicated on the stage made me stop taking hurried notes for this article.
It should not come as a surprise that the production’s charm, wit, angst and outrage could hold up to any Broadway production, since it was written by C2C in collaboration with award-winning playwright, Joyce Sylvester, based on real-world events with musical numbers and performances by the show-stopping Emeline Michel and Caribbean-fusion guitarist Belo. Their music seamlessly folded into the action to enliven us and remind us we’re here to celebrate! They sang of freedom and joy, and like the simplicity of water, these terms took on new and deep meaning for the audience.
At the end of his journey, our reporter asks Ketlee what she would say if she could speak to the world, and we get the feeling this is not so he can “get a good scoop” but that perhaps, somehow, her words could travel across the water to a place and a people that could actually do something to help. She says, in the same unaffected but heartfelt tone she maintained throughout, “We still need support from the outside…but the kind that is filled with love and courage that understands that we need to build forward together for Haïti to become self-sufficient. Now that will surely give us hope and a future!” Marie-Yolaine Eusebe wants to give her that future. In her closing remarks she asked, “When we return next year, will Ketlee be in the same position again or will we have made a difference with the completion of our water system?”
I may not know what our reporter’s story looked like once he reunited with his laptop to put it all down, but I’m sure he’d want Ketlee’s words out there. Maybe the words, and the stories, are important after all.
You have seen the words, now relive the Story of the Water through images taking at “Hope and A Future” A Celebration of Haïti by visiting Jami’s blog Two Men and a Lady (and an RV).
The third annual “Hope and A Future” A Celebration of Haïti is an annual awareness and fundraising initiative to raise much needed funds toward completion of a water distribution system to provide clean, potable water to 16,000 residents of Petit Goâve, Haïti. To learn more or make a donation, please visit www.community2community.info.
Jami Kelmenson is a writer and content editor for Community2Community.