This season the EST/Sloan Project’sFirst Light Festival began in December with readings of three new plays: TECTONIC MÉLANGE by Deborah Yarchun, THINGS THAT CANNOT TAKE CAREOF THEMSELVES by Sinead Daly, and MARIA SIBYLLA by Arlene Hutton*.
The Festival kicks off its 2016 readings on January 7 at EST with THE DEVIL'S SALT by France-Luce Benson*, a drama about two quite different agronomists working with farmers in Haiti during “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s tumultuous rise to power in 1958. Currently an Associate Professor of English at St. Johns University and a Dramatists Guild Fellow, France-Luce Benson has had several of her plays read and produced at EST and is a Lifetime EST Member. She was kind enough to take time from her busy teaching/writing schedule to answer some of our questions about THE DEVIL’S SALT.
How did you come to write THE DEVIL’S SALT?
Several years ago I wrote a screenplay, Healing Roots, that was awarded a prize by the Alfred P. Sloan Film Program. So when I discovered EST’s partnership with the Sloan Foundation, I was excited about the challenge of writing a Sloan stage play. I kicked around a few ideas, but was determined to find material that aligned with my artistic mission to write plays that celebrate Haitian culture. I remembered seeing Jonathan Demme’s 2003 documentary, The Agronomist, about Jean Dominique. While the documentary focuses primarily on Dominque’s career as a radio journalist (he founded Radio Haiti, the first independent radio station to broadcast in Kreyol), there is a brief, yet poignant, part of the film that delves into his early career as an agronomist (which is how Dominique still describes himself in an interview decades later, hence the title). To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what an agronomist was. But anyone who’s seen that film, or has ever heard his international radio show, would agree that Jean Dominique was an incredibly compelling character. He was naturally dramatic and his larger than life persona seemed ripe for theatrical interpretation. I really just wanted to write a play about him, and tried to figure out how I could propose it as a Sloan play.
As I began to research the science of agronomy, the subject seemed timely. Our climate and the environment are rapidly becoming global crises, and agriculture has always been tied to class struggle and politics. The work that Jean Dominique did as an agronomist eventually landed him in prison and served as the catalyst for his powerful work as a journalist. I found that fascinating and decided I would tell that story. I proposed my concept to EST and (forgive the cliché) the rest is history.
The title, THE DEVIL’S SALT, refers to the black alkali that can ruin the soil for farming and the plot revolves in part around the efforts of the two agronomists to help Haitian farmers understand and treat the problem. What kind of research in soil science did you have to do to write the play? Did you consult with any scientists?
This play has been the most challenging for me, to date, in terms of research. I knew little about the science of agronomy, I barely even knew what it was. Once I began my research, I quickly discovered that agronomy is an enormously broad subject, as is agriculture. (FYI: agronomy is the science of agriculture). Not only does it vary in complexity from country to country, but in any one particular country, there are endless branches of studies. In a country like Haiti, that is (or was) incredibly rich in natural resources, agricultural books and essays go on for days. Dominique was a soil specialist, so that allowed me to fine tune my research. At first, a lot of what I found was written after 1970, over a decade after the time Dominique would have been working.
My first great find was an old book I discovered at the New York Public Library. Simply titled Agriculture in Haiti by Marc Holley, it was written in the 50s, used a lot of laymen’s terms, and broke down Haiti’s landscape from what crops were most fertile, what problems and concerns farmers had, and even had several chapters about the farmers themselves. Those chapters about the farmers were particularly revealing. Here was a widely respected book, written by a learned scientist, yet he described the peasant farmers as “uneducated and having no common sense, lazy, wild, etc.” I realized that this perception of the peasant class would inform much of the action of the play. I found a few more books that helped, but there was hardly anything written about Dominique’s work, or even about agricultural work at that time.
Then I got a lucky break. I mentioned the play at a dinner party and discovered that a friend of a friend had worked with Demme on the documentary. He put me in touch with Dominique’s widow, Michelle Montas, who actually lives here in NYC. She graciously agreed to meet. My interview with her was amazing in so many ways, and yet frustrating. Ms. Montas had great stories about Dominique, and offered deliciously specific details about his personality that helped to shape not only his character but the play as well. However, she met him later in his life, when he was already working as a journalist. She knew very little about the work he did as an agronomist and confided that she was certain his time in prison must have been traumatic because he never spoke of it. Furthermore, because the work he and his partners were doing at the time was perceived as anti-establishment, much of it was not documented – or perhaps was destroyed upon his arrest. I had a hell of a time just trying to determine precisely what he did and why it was so controversial.
Eventually, I connected and consulted with Steve Cullman, Assistant Professor of Soil Fertility at Ohio State University. By that time, I had nearly completed the first draft. He checked for accuracy and provided some specific details. Through my readings I learned that the black/white alkali phenomenon was a common problem. I liked it as a metaphor for the class struggle in Haiti, which is closely tied to skin complexion, and because it reflected the ongoing struggle between good and evil so prevalent in Haitian politics and spirituality.
Finally, I discovered a farm here in Brooklyn, in the back of a public school, where I spent a day working, learning as much as I could about what a farmer’s work day might actually look and feel like. The few hours I spent tilling soil were exhausting. I could not imagine doing it for 10-12”hours in 90 degree heat. That provided me with a visceral understanding of who these people were.
THE DEVIL’S SALT is set in Haiti in 1958, a year after François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power as president. What interested you about that period in Haiti’s history?
This would have been the time when Jean Dominique was working as an agronomist; and it was in François Duvalier’s early years that Dominique was arrested. When “Papa Doc” died in 1971, his son “Baby Doc” succeeded him as President for another fifteen years; the Duvalier dictatorship lasted from 1957-1986, nearly thirty years. So aside from the Slave Revolution of the 1790s and the 2010 earthquake, the Duvalier regime has had the greatest impact on Haiti today. During those years, many of Haiti’s potential leaders – its intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, professors and scientists – were either exiled, murdered, or they emigrated. Just as the government prevented agronomists like the characters in the play from doing their work — which may have contributed to the decay and deforestation of Haiti’s natural resources — it also robbed Haiti of the very individuals who could have changed the course of her history.
In describing Rene Mevs, the plantation owner, you specify that he is “light skinned but not mulatto.” Why do you make that distinction?
During that period, skin complexion and class distinction in Haiti went arm in arm. I didn’t want to make Mevs white, and I felt that even making him mulatto was an entirely different conversation. There’s a Kreyol term “grimaud/grimelle,” which is used to describe a very light-skinned black person. People who were considered “grimelle” constituted their own class, and often made up part of the bourgeoisie. This division that existed between Haitians who considered themselves black also occurs here in America, and in other countries where Africans were enslaved. It is a damaging mentality inherited through colonization.
I also wanted to make Mevs a more complex character. He is not simply a white racist. He is a black man who, perhaps, is confused; he is beholden to the hierarchies that dictate this society; he proudly declares that he has a direct ancestral link to the Revolution, and yet he has clearly assimilated and uses his social status to manipulate Mrilande and Luvens. However, because he is black, he does not have the same kind of power and influence which whites and mullatos have. Which makes him vulnerable to Duvalier’s regime. Duvalier himself used inflammatory language regarding complexion as part of his political platform. He created the term “noirism,” insisting that he would fight for the rights of dark-skinned Haitians. Yet his wife was part mulatto, his government was supported by the U.S., and “noirism” was simply propaganda to gain the support and loyalty of the people his government would eventually oppress.
Almost every scene in the play is infused with some kind of sensuality, whether it’s between the peasant farmers Luvens and Mrilande; or between Mrilande and Mevs, the plantation owner; or between Serge, the farmer turned Ton Ton Macoute, and his wife Bernadine. Is this something unique to this group of characters, integral to Haitian culture, or characteristic of the plays of France-Luce Benson?
Ha-Ha, good question. I think all of the above. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but in looking at my body of work, I have to admit that sensuality finds its way into most of my plays. But yes, I believe that it is because Haitian culture serves as the backdrop for most of my work, and sensuality is so prevalent in Haitian music, dance, spirituality, humor, etc. These characters, in particular, are people of the earth. They are deeply connected to the natural world, and that is sexy. They are like artists in that their lives are about creating. Like many artists, they would be very much in touch with their sensuality. At the same time, 1950s Haiti (even Haiti today) was a conservative Christian, Puritanical society. So of course, there would be an undercurrent of sexuality running just beneath the surface.
You have written other plays about Haitian culture and history. Your first play, Silence of the Mambo, was set on the night before the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986; Ascension follows three generations of Haitian women; Boat People was about a Haitian-American family in Miami in the 1980s; and Bright Lights, Tent City returns to Port-au-Prince one year after the 2010 earthquake. What keeps bringing you back to Haitian subjects?
Haiti has been so misrepresented by the media. Every time I see us depicted as some negative stereotype, it re-ignites my passion to tell the truth. Our history and our culture are so compelling and rich, so it’s crazy to me that our stories are not getting told. It really has become my mission. August Wilson’s successful endeavor to pen a canon of plays that dramatize African-American history is so inspiring to me. I want to do the same thing with Haitian culture. My vision is that many years from now, anyone can read my plays and gain a deeper, authentic understanding of Haiti’s culture and history. I am not opposed to writing plays from other perspectives; I have and will in the future. But I feel strongly that I have a purpose, a unique voice, and an awesome opportunity to shift negative perceptions.
Jean and Vil, the two agronomists in THE DEVIL’S SALT, seem to share the plight of Adrien, the doctor in your screenplay, Healing Roots. Anyone trying to introduce the benefits of modern science into Haiti must fight through hostility, frustration, suspicion and peril. Whoever pursues this must be on a mission — yet I enjoyed how you undercut Jean’s implicit heroism through his sometimes clumsy speechifying. Did you base these agronomists on any actual people?
Jean is based on Jean Dominique, whose life and work inspired the play. But as I mentioned, so little was available about the work he was doing, that I created what I imagined it might be based on my research. I also allowed myself the freedom to create a fictional interpretation of him. Vil is not based on any one person. He’s a composite of various people. But since Jean is reckless, quick-witted, and impulsive – I wanted to introduce balance with Vil.
You have had readings and performances of several of your other plays at the Ensemble Studio Theatre: the award-winning Fati’s Last Dance at Octoberfest 2010, Risen from the Dough at the 2009 Going to the River Festival, and Silence of the Mambo, Destiny’s Edge, Ascension, and Floating Under Water at previous festivals. It’s no wonder that you are now a Lifetime Member of EST. How has having your new play be part of the EST/Sloan Project First Light Festival been different from these other EST programs?
It has been an absolute privilege to have been guided throughout the writing of this play, from the initial proposal to this latest draft. I don’t know that I would venture to write a play like this, so outside of my comfort level in terms of subject matter, without the encouragement and support of EST and the Sloan Foundation. And the Sloan project is quite ingenious, I have to say. Writing this play has genuinely piqued my curiosity about not only agronomy, but scientific exploration in general. I’d love to write another because it’s exciting to broaden my knowledge in this way. And I suppose that is precisely what the Sloan Foundation aims to do.
What’s next for France-Luce Benson?
My play Bright Lights, Tent City will have an encore production at New Perspectives Theatre, running Feb.22-March 13; and I am developing a new play with EST, tentatively titled The Deportation Chronicles. It was originally commissioned by Judy Rabinovitz, a Deputy Immigration Attorney with the ACLU, who conceived of the project. The play is based on interviews with immigrants who have been unjustly detained and/or deported. The first reading of the play took place in August 2015. Since then, EST has offered me the opportunity to continue to develop the play under Billy Carden’s guidance, and I hope to possibly produce it in 2017. I am also currently a Dramatists Guild Fellow, where I am writing a new full length play.
The First Light Festival is a three-month-long series of workshop productions and readings that is part of the play development process of The EST/Sloan Project, a joint venture of the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
Watch the trailer for Jonathan Demme's 2003 documentary about Jean Dominique, The Agronomist:
*indicates Ensemble Artist