The Secret Life of J.M. Denis

By day he manages the parking facilities at the airport. By night he's Jan Mapou, Miami's guardian of Haitian culture.

Tonight, Saturday, a dozen Sosyete Koukouy dancers and three drummers have gathered for rehearsal in the walled open-air courtyard behind the shop. The dancers, who aren't paid and usually hold day jobs, have several dates coming up, including performances at public schools and at Vizcaya. They'll do a piece celebrating Haitian flag day and a shortened version of a popular program enacting the history of Haiti.

Folk scenes are painted on the courtyard's pink walls. A dancer's barre stretches along one wall, and a shaky-looking basketball hoop stands in an opposite corner. As a half-moon emerges in the violet sky, the drummers start tapping and pounding out different patterns in the specialized and nuanced language of Haitian drum rhythms.

Most of the dancers are women wearing loose pants over leotards. Barefoot on the smooth concrete, all line up behind Marie-Henri Antoine Volel, a classically trained dancer who left Haiti only two years ago. Most Sosyete Koukouy dancers had solid experience in Haiti, remarks dance director Nancy St. Leger, a speech therapist for the Miami-Dade public school system. "But a lot of younger Haitians always say, 'Oh, we know that dance. I saw that when I was in Haiti,'" St. Leger says. "But then they find out it's not as easy as it looks; they still have to learn it. A lot of people have come in and out of here in the last five years."

Volel, moving wraithlike in brown tights and white T-shirt knotted above his navel, leads the group first in warm-up movements, then in increasingly complex steps and turns. The drummers, sometimes striking the side of the drum with sticks, lift their heads to sing about fields and skies, old chants Haitian villagers used to improvise at the end of a day of harvesting. In a ceremonial dance to Danmbala, the vodou snake deity, the dancers' arms unfurl like ribbons, hips undulate in perfect sensual accord, backs arch like the rainbow that is one of Danmbala's manifestations. An hour passes and the drum rhythms, along with the sky, grow darker and deeper, a thick hypnotic stew of time signatures. Before taking a break, the dancers go into a rara, a street dance. Fast and fluid, they repeat an elaborate series of twirls and turns, syncopated thrusts and hops.

Meanwhile Wooley Henriquez has arrived at the bookstore carrying a thick manuscript of his first play. Henriquez, a Haitian expatriate, was a professor, actor, and director of a performing arts center in Senegal before coming to Miami a few years ago. Mapou and other writers and officers of Sosyete Koukouy pull up chairs around a bank of computers to discuss the possibility of staging the play. It's a comedy about Haitians who come to the United States only to decide they want to go back to Haiti. Henriquez's voice rises and falls; he growls, chuckles, cries, and gestures forcefully as he describes the action. The group decides to begin rehearsals right away and perform the play by the end of August.

Mapou wrote half the twelve plays Sosyete Koukouy has performed so far in Miami; the most successful productions have been Chaloska, an adaptation of a South African play about apartheid martyr Stephen Biko, which in 1987 toured the eastern United States and Canada; DPM Kannte, about an ill-fated boat (kannte) of Haitians heading to Miami, a video of which was widely distributed in Haiti and other nations; Libete u Lammė (Liberty or Death), about the start of the slave rebellion that led to Haitian independence, and which drew such crowds to Miami's Caleb Center that the troupe had to schedule extra performances; and Antigone by the late Haitian cultural icon Felix Morisseau-Leroy (a Creole version of Sophocles' 2400-year-old masterpiece).

"Sosyete Koukouy is a way to try to keep alive the Haitian culture, to keep our soul alive. If you destroy our soul we are finished," says Dr. Ernst Mirville, a retired psychiatrist and professor of French who has lived in Miami since 1988. "Haitian culture is very important for Haiti now because the economy is very bad and the only thing you have now is our culture. It links different social classes. There may be other ways to try to keep it alive but Sosyete Koukouy is a very important one, because political problems have caused a real cultural diaspora."

A quiet bespectacled man in his late fifties, Mirville speaks from experience. In 1969 he and Mapou were arrested at a Port au Prince radio station. Their crime: speaking Creole on the air. They were handcuffed to each other and thrown naked into a cell at the notorious Fort Dimanche prison along with eleven other men.

Mirville and Mapou were members of the Haitian Creole Movement (Mouvman Kreyėl Ayisyen), an organization formed to advocate for Creole as Haiti's official language. At the time French was the only language spoken publicly, even though most of the population knew only Creole. "Creole wasn't considered a real language, just a patois," Mirville observes. "It was forbidden to speak it in school. The government used it as a way to control the people."

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