The Voice of Haiti

Paris, Ghana, Senegal, Miami. Poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy spent half his life in exile, but his heart never left home.

The playwright had been planning the Paris trip and had even set the date. He had problems securing airline tickets for his actors, whom he felt should get diplomatic discounts because they would be representing Haiti abroad.

"At six o'clock in the morning on the day we were supposed to leave, one of Duvalier's secretaries came to me and said, 'The president wants to talk to you,'" Morisseau relates, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. "I knew him very well, he was a friend of mine, this I will tell you. So I went to the palace and he said to me that he knew that I wanted to go to Paris and he would help me. He said, 'I talked to the director of Pan Am, everything is all right for you. Did you come in your car?'

"I said, 'No, you sent for me.' He called his assistant and said, 'Get Mr. Morisseau the Number One' A that was the presidential car. So I sat behind the driver in the Number One and we went to the office of Pan Am. The director had gotten out of bed and come to the office. The chauffeur knocked on the door and said, 'The president has sent Mr. Morisseau-Leroy for the tickets.' And he said 'Yes, the tickets are ready.' I didn't say anything, because I had nothing to say.

"I went back home and told everyone I was leaving," he continues quietly, nervously stroking his hair. "So I went."

"I knew that I was in exile. I knew that I was not going back to Haiti."
Morisseau stayed in Paris after the performance of Antigone, unsure of what to do next. He applied for a job teaching in Africa and was sent to a college in Nigeria as a professor of French. From there he was invited to give a lecture in Ghana, where he presented his ideas about popular theater, based on his successful experience with Antigone. He was subsequently hired to work for that nation's arts council.

Five years passed before Morisseau learned what had happened to his family. Any letters they sent him were intercepted, he says. Once, on a business trip to Moscow, he met a Haitian friend who told him that Renee and his children had been in jail but had been freed. Soon after that a letter from Renee arrived. One at a time, his family joined him in Africa.

"We tried our best to live. . . ." he murmurs.
He is quiet for a moment.
The leftist government in Ghana was overthrown in 1966, but Morisseau was able to get another job in Senegal, where he and his family would live for fourteen years. (His son Jean is still there). There, as in Ghana, he was a cultural diplomat, working for the government as technical advisor for the Senegalese Federation of People's Theater, for which he staged his own plays as well as those of prominent African playwrights.

In 1981, at the age of 69, Morisseau retired. At the urging of his son Axel, a computer technician who lives in Kendall with his family, he and Renee moved to Miami.

"Don't expect to find me dying," Morisseau shouts into the phone with a laugh. I'm still here!"

Morisseau is propped up on a cot in his living room, having undergone an operation in late March to remove a tumor from his colon. A second surgery is imminent. He has cajoled his doctor into letting him return home in the meantime instead of going to a rehab center.

The patient is confined to his living room and patio but is in exuberant spirits. His wife is tired. She has had to restrict visitors; there are just too many people calling.

Morisseau is no longer an exile. He first returned to Haiti in 1986. Last year, in the wake of Aristide's reascendance and the American military invasion, Morisseau traveled to Jacmel with his good friend Katharine Kean, a New York filmmaker who documented the events following the 1991 coup in her movie Haiti: Killing the Dream. Kean will feature the poet in a new film about present-day Haiti that she is currently editing.

"Morisseau's work is universal," says Kean, who frequently gives copies of Haitiad & Oddities, his book of poems in English translation, as gifts. "He shouldn't be known only to Haitians."

Although Haiti will always be home to Morisseau, at the end of his life he has found another Haiti in Miami. He has become the elder statesman of the local community of Haitian immigrants. One local group, the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, recently created a scholarship fund in his name.

"Morisseau-Leroy is the leading encyclopedia of Haitian history and culture for the young and old," says Jan Mapou, a member of the alliance who owns the Libreri Mapou bookstore in Little Haiti's Caribbean market on NE Second Avenue. A mural painted on a wall outside the shop depicts Morisseau telling stories to a group of children gathered under a mapou tree, the legendary home of Vodou spirits and the Haitian tree of knowledge. The bookstore carries several of Morisseau's Creole publications and recordings, as well as Haitiad & Oddities. "I consider him as a hero in our literature. He is like our Dante, our Shakespeare, our Voltaire."

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