Crystal Chase, AKA’s Senior Digital Account Supervisor, journeyed to Haiti with the producing team of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND to cover the auditions for Ti Moune. Here is Crystal’s incredible story.
Haiti, or as it written there, Ayiti, is a magical, resilient, vibrant, mountainous place—filled with people as prideful and wondrous as their long legacy of triumph and struggle. Seeing the people walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince, you don’t see distress and longing in their eyes, as they are often depicted in the American press. Instead, you see men as flamboyant as peacocks, strutting down the street in their masculinity, women swaying their hips, hypnotizing you with their waistlines, and children laughing and playing under the mountainous skyline.
When I was asked to embark on this journey, I was sitting in an ad meeting chatting about the announcement and launch of the Broadway revival of Once on This Island. I was saying how important it was, from an agency perspective, to document the casting trip to Haiti (the first stop on the search to find the new Ti Moune) and capture the authenticity for our marketing. Ken Davenport, the lead producer, immediately turned to me and said, “You should go. I want you to go.”
It was as if someone let all the air out of the room, and I only heard a hum in my ears. Did I hear him correctly? Was he asking me to go? I put my hand on my chest and said, “Really? Are you serious?” He said, “Yes!” I didn’t know what to say or do, but hug Ken. I am half Haitian and had never been to Haiti. But I’ve always had a deep connection to Haiti, and Once on This Island (I played Mama Eurulie in High School), and I was about to embark on a journey to find Ti Moune. I was grateful and humbled by his generosity.
When the day came, I met Michael Arden (Director), Craig Burns (Casting), Dane Laffrey (Set Designer) and Jordon D. Axelrod (Videographer) at the airport. I didn’t know them that well, some not at all, but we were all excited to set off to find “her.” We didn’t know what to expect, but something about it felt right. From the moment we arrived in Haiti, it was go, go, go. We met our wonderful tour guides, Betsy and Regine, who know the country like the back of their hands. We visited a wonderful school for the blind and the deaf, where Michael Arden had a heartfelt conversation in ASL with one of the Haitian teachers. I couldn’t help but think of the power of communication. Here was Michael, in a country that speaks Kreyol, and yet he was having a conversation that was filled with smiles, warmth and joy. I felt chills run down my spine.
Our next stop was the Bureau D’Ethnologie, where we met the amazing Erol Josué! Mr. Josué is a phenomenal director and expert on the Vodou religion, culture and history. He guided us around the museum, allowed us to stay and watch a rehearsal, and even graced the stage to give us a little taste of traditional Haitian song and chanting alongside some of his drummers and dancers. It was magical! After visiting many more locations—and eating some of the most delicious foods—we ended our night with dinner at Petionville. The restaurant in Petionville was as enchanting as I imagine walking into Rick’s café, from the film Casablana, would be. We sat in the open air as the moon peered through the clouds above us. Picture it; open air, moonlight, great food, and a live Haitian band. You can’t get any better than that. We danced. We laughed. And we soaked up the authentic Haitian air.
The next day, as we got closer to the audition space, we didn’t know if anyone would show up or if the performers would be prepared to audition. We arrived at a great space facing the beautiful mountains. Michael and the team were excited to meet the potential cast members. As auditioners arrived, I wanted to capture their story. Why were they auditioning? What would this mean for Haiti if they were cast? What would it mean for them? From everyone I asked, the answer was the same: “I love music. This will be a great opportunity to showcase Haitian talent, and who better to tell this story than Haitians?” One gentlemen told me that he was a music teacher living in a “red zone,” which is a dangerous area in Haiti riddled with gang violence. But he was an amazing guitar player, and it was clear his voice was guided by his wisdom and perseverance.
As we wrapped up auditions, we had one last stop on the trip—Artis Rezistans! This avant-garde outdoor gallery is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the country, tinged with signs of devastation from the hurricane and earthquake. The founder, André Eugène, is all that you want in a founder of an art gallery in Haiti. He’s cool, he’s artistic, he’s worldly and well-travelled. His art is as progressive and mythically aggressive as Haitian Rara music. The sculptures and the woodwork will leave you feeling exposed and intrigued.
Oh, Haiti! Ayiti, the first black republic in the world, is truly a beauteous place filled with culture, mystery, stories and spiritual force. I am looking forward to this Broadway production of Once on This Island, and I can confidently say that it is in great hands. This creative team will respectfully bring out the authenticity while celebrating the legacy of this country and its people. Rather than cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation will be at the forefront, and as we know, the Gods will be watching.
Check out our social channels for the latest in our continued search for Ti Moune, which continues in Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, L.A. and New York.