Diaspora

Leyla McCalla explores the legacy of Radio Haiti in 'Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever' at Contemporary Arts Center – NOLA.com

Choreographer and dancer Sheila Anozier and musician Leyla McCalla

Gambit staff writer
Choreographer and dancer Sheila Anozier and musician Leyla McCalla
Leyla McCalla relishes the process of doing research. The Haitian-American songwriter, who lives in New Orleans, regularly draws inspiration from the things she reads, and she has explored Haitian culture in her music along with Creole and Cajun influences.
When she was invited by Duke Performances, an arts organization at Duke University, to explore the university’s Radio Haiti-Inter archives, she found “the opportunity to do research in a different way and listen,” McCalla says.
Radio Haiti began broadcasting in the late-1950s and was not only the country’s first independent radio station, it also was the first to broadcast in Creole, spoken by most Haitians, when other media was broadcast in French. Led by journalists Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas, the station was a staunch promoter of democracy and human rights and celebrated Haitian life and culture.
The station closed in 2003, and in 2014, Montas donated the Radio Haiti archives — more than 30 years’ worth of material — to the Human Rights Archive at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library. A few years later, Duke Performances, along with the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans and Miami Dade College’s MDC Live Arts, commissioned McCalla to dig into the archive and create new works influenced by what she found.
McCalla asked New Orleans-based artist Kiyoko McCrae to produce and co-direct the project with her. In late-February and early-March 2020, McCalla and McCrae premiered “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever” in Durham, North Carolina. The performances took place a month before the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Dominique.
This weekend, McCalla and McCrae bring “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever” to the CAC, which hosted production residencies for the project between 2018 and 2020. Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, and Saturday, Dec. 4, and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 5.
“I’m Haitian-American, born in the United States, and I grew up with a lot of people speaking Creole around me, but not really to me. And so, then I’m faced with listening to these recordings, much of them in French and Creole,” McCalla says. “It’s been a huge learning experience, understanding Radio Haiti in the context of Haitian history, and then in the context of the world we live in today. Making connections over the last four or five years of working on this has been a really big education.”
“Breaking the Thermometer” combines new music — both originals and arrangements of traditional Haitian songs — by McCalla with storytelling, dance, video projection and audio pulled from the Radio Haiti archive. The piece also incorporates video from “The Agronomist,” a documentary about Radio Haiti and Dominique. The documentary’s title alludes to Dominique’s former profession — during which he also worked with Haitian farmers to protect their land rights — before joining Radio Haiti in the 1960s and becoming a journalist.
Haitian-American artist Sheila Anozier choreographed and will perform the dance pieces in “Breaking the Thermometer,” and Zuri Obi, also of Haitian descent, developed the sound and projection design for the show along with Kyle Sheehan. The project also contains contributions from percussionists Shawn Myers and Markus Schwartz, set designer Jebney Lewis and dramaturg Laura Wagner.

The performance explores the history and importance of Radio Haiti and the work of journalists like Dominique and Montas, but it also frames Haiti through McCalla’s perspective. Both of the musician’s parents were born in Haiti and immigrated to the U.S. And there is a history of activism in her family. Leyla’s maternal grandfather, Ben Dupuy, was a radical journalist in Haiti and ran a socialist newspaper in New York City. Her mother, Régine Dupuy, started the anti-domestic violence human rights organization Dwa Fanm. And her father, Jocelyn McCalla, was the executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights for close to 20 years.
“We’ve been kind of talking about it as like a live documentary,” McCrae says. “Documentary in a sense that it’s also about Leyla’s life and her journey.”
Dominique and Montas used Radio Haiti to passionately speak out against corruption and abuses perpetrated by Haitian administrations and the powers outside Haiti trying to take advantage of the country. The journalists and the station became a target of attacks. In April 2000, Dominique was assassinated while entering the radio station, an attack that also killed station employee Jean-Claude Louissaint. Montas continued Radio Haiti broadcasts for another three years but closed the station in 2003 following more death threats and an attack on her home that killed a security guard.
The title “Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever” comes from a proverb Dominique used, specifically in an interview the journalist gave about the independent press being attacked in Haiti. There was a major crackdown on the media in November 1980 — an effort that took place right after Ronald Reagan was elected president, McCrae says. The Haitian government saw the election as an opportunity, correctly believing Reagan wouldn’t stand with human rights activists.
“So much of what happens here in the United States in policy impacts Haiti, and most Americans don’t know that history and relationship,” McCrae says.
There’s an old history between Haiti and New Orleans. Following the Haitian Revolution, more than 10,000 Haitians arrived in New Orleans within the first decade of the 19th century. And the country’s influence can be seen in New Orleans’ culture.
“New Orleans for me has been a huge place of connecting more deeply with Haiti,” McCalla says. “There’s been a lot of conversation over the last 10 years about connections between New Orleans and Haiti and how much of our culture here comes from Haiti. It feels particularly meaningful to be bringing this to our community here.”
Email Jake Clapp at jclapp@gambitweekly.com
December 3 – 5, 2021 | CAC Blackbox Theater

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