Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever is a multidisciplinary performance set to new music by Haitian-American singer-songwriter Leyla McCalla and directed by Kiyoko McCrae, both New Orleans-based artists. Commissioned by Duke Performances, the project explores the legacy of Radio Haiti-Inter, Haiti’s first privately owned Creole-speaking radio station, and the assassination of its owner, Jean Dominique, in 2000. The title is derived from a proverb used by Dominique to describe the spirit of Haiti’s marginalized poor in the face of violence and political oppression.
Breaking the Thermometer weaves together storytelling, dance, video projection, and audio recordings from Duke’s Radio Haiti Archive with McCalla’s own compositions and arrangements of traditional Haitian songs. Through this juxtaposition of voices — the personal and political, the anecdotal and the journalistic — McCalla gives expression to the enduring spirit of Haiti’s marginalized poor in the face of several centuries of political oppression. She pays homage along the way to the activists like Dominique who have fought, often at great personal cost, to amplify these unheard voices.
In telling this story, McCalla also lends her own voice to a tradition of Haitian-American activism spanning three generations within her family. Her father, Jocelyn McCalla, served as executive director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights from 1988 to 2006. Her mother, Régine Dupuy, is the founder of Dwa Fanm, an anti-domestic violence human rights organization, and the daughter of Ben Dupuy, one of Haiti’s foremost radical journalists, who from 1983 until 1991 ran Haïti Progrès, a New-York based Haitian socialist newspaper.
Beginning literally in darkness, with a recorded conversation between McCalla and her mother, McCalla embarks on a journey of remembrance and self-discovery, connecting her earliest childhood memories of Haiti with political events whose historical reverberations she lacked the context to understand at the time. Coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of Dominique’s assassination on April 3, 2000, Breaking the Thermometer also presents a timely affirmation of the importance of a free press capable of speaking truth to power: one that stands to resonate broadly in our current political landscape, where the efforts of journalists are increasingly discredited by officials at the highest levels of elected office.
Breaking the Thermometer is the latest installment in Duke Performances’ ongoing From the Archives initiative — following Jenny Scheinman’s Kannapolis, Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee, and Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues — in which performing artists create works engaging archival materials from Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Radio Haiti Archive is contained within the broader Human Rights Archive at Duke. Over the past two years, McCalla and McCrae, with guidance from Duke professor and Haiti specialist Laurent Dubois and Radio Haiti project archivist Laura Wagner, have mined this archive for recordings that showcase the impact of Radio Haiti-Inter on Haitian cultural and political history.
Duke Performances is lead commissioner of Breaking the Thermometer. The project will premiere in Durham, NC in March 2020 and is currently seeking commissioning and presenting partners. The work is available for touring nationally and internationally in Spring 2020 and beyond.
The Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans hosted the first production residency for the project in September/October 2018. Two additional residencies at the CAC will follow in Spring and Summer 2019.
As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, I have always tried to understand and reconcile my Haitian roots with my upbringing in the US. Living in Haiti for several months as a child exposed me to the duality of the first-generation immigrant experience where, on the one hand, I witnessed extreme poverty in Haiti and on the other, I felt the stigmatization of my blackness growing up in the US. This experience has profoundly shaped my mission as a musician.
As my artistic practice has been motivated by exploring narratives that expose and challenge systems of oppression, engaging with the Radio Haiti archive to create this piece has been an education in the role of a free and independent press in a democratic society. The title comes from a phrase used by Radio Haiti’s station owner, Jean Dominique, to talk about the ways in which the state uses violent means to repress the masses of Haiti’s impoverished citizens. Using audio from the Radio Haiti archive, sounds of Haiti, video projections, and songs, juxtaposed with recorded interviews with family members and former Radio Haiti journalists as well as my original writing and music, the piece reflects both my subconscious and conscious ideas about what it means to be Haitian.
As I dig into my memories of Haiti, the audience is invited on this journey to explore the story of Radio Haiti as it struggled to assert its agency in the face of oppressive power structures.
My work is primarily multidisciplinary, story-based, devised theater which has been influenced by my mentor John O’Neal (founder of Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions) and his practice of Story Circles. As the director, the wonderful challenge that I have been presented with is to figure out what medium best serves the storytelling at any given moment throughout the piece.
My background in composing and performing music, filmmaking, and dance has helped inform this process. In addition to live music, we have been exploring the various ways in which Leyla’s memories and reflections can live in recorded sound — conversations with her mother, reading letters to her grandmother, short original poems, all of which have their own unique textures and tones that are rich entries for the audience into Leyla’s discovery, reflection, and connection to the Radio Haiti story. Although our cultures are very different, as an artist who grew up in Japan, I feel an affinity for Leyla’s experience as we explore themes of home, exile, memory, and tradition.