Just a day away from the theatrical opening of BOX- The Stage Play on September 15th, Haitian American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and producer Fabrice J. Armand is in a pensive mood. Lengthy rehearsals, phone calls, interviews, and e-mails by the dozens consume his time as he makes his first foray in the theatre capitol of the world, New York City. Fabrice knows that being a theatre producer requires equal parts of artistic vision and keen business skills. But he willingly assumed a greater role when he attached himself to a play with social and moral underpinnings.
BOX, explores the emotional, physical, and spiritual journey of four Haitian men who stow away aboard a container ship in 1988, seeking freedom by sealing themselves inside a large coffee container. In their quest for freedom, the ghost of historical figure Henry “Box” Brown, a former slave who mailed himself in a large, wooden box to freedom in 1848, confronts each of them as they come to grips with their mortality. Fabrice took a few minutes out of his frenetic schedule to share with Urban Cusp his own journey on the producer’s path and how he hopes all of us will direct our thoughts out of any ‘box’ that is constraining us.
Urban Cusp: How did you get involved with BOX?
Fabrice J. Armand: I was approached by CEO Emelyn Stuart of Stuart Films, LLC. She reached out to me because a mutual friend [told her] that I am very close to the Haitian culture, I know a lot about Haiti, and I was doing a lot of fundraising for Haiti. She wanted to hire me for my marketing ability. At our first meeting she told me a little about the play but I was skeptical because one of the things that [is important to me when I get] involved in a project about Haiti is it needs to be really positive and portray Haiti in a positive light. I told her the script was good but there were some things that were not authentic in terms of the culture that still needed to be worked on. I was giving her ideas on music, concepts, [and] advertising to the target group. Then, she said it would be ideal for me to be a producer. One, they didn’t have anyone of Haitian descent on board to help with the authenticity of the play. Two, my experience in marketing and fundraising would help [the project].
UC: What is the background of the playwright?
FA: Fred Shahadi is an award-winning playwright. He wrote the John Adams’ Inauguration play that was performed for [former Presidents Carter, Ford, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan].
UC: What was Mr. Shahadi’s motivation for writing the play?
FA: I think [he wanted] to draw a parallel between the stories that he knows of slavery and of immigrants. We all know that [when] certain immigrant groups come to the U.S., they are portrayed differently and there is a certain stigma. I think he wanted to create an analogy between an African American slavery experience and a Haitian immigrant experience. I think that was probably his motivation. I believe that as we are witnessing the events in post-earthquake Haiti this project has greater resonance to bring awareness to Haiti and address many of the ongoing issues.
UC: Why should people see this play?
FA: I think one of the great things about the play is that it draws parallels between Henry “Box” Brown, the slave who literally mailed himself to freedom and survived in a box for 27 hours in 1848 and four Haitian men who are trying to ship themselves to obtain the American dream. [The play also explores each man’s] perception of the American dream whether it is real or unreal. What makes it even more interesting is that you discover the different layers of each character. It is a story of endurance. It is a story about trying at all costs to obtain the American dream… At a moment when the immigrant debate is on the forefront of agendas in politics, it humanizes the story and draws [the connection] that there is no difference between Haitian immigrants and [any other] immigrants. Whether you came through Ellis Island or you came [in other ways], there is no difference. Regardless of your race or culture, it is the same experience- the American immigrant experience.
UC: Some people believe that theatre is a dying art form. What does it mean to you as a young man of color to be involved in this art form?
FA: Besides certain projects like Fela (but that’s a Broadway musical), the theater world has been struggling a lot. But to be able to put something out that deals with culture, heritage, and history and at the same time tells our story, I think that was the biggest joy for me in regard to this project. I particularly take an interest in my culture- in actually making sure people understand that whether it is the African experience, the African American experience, the Caribbean experience, or the Haitian experience it is something very powerful that needs to be at the forefront but it sometimes it isn’t because of the costs associated with putting on a production.
UC: Are there any actors in the play who might be familiar to us?
FA: We were fortunate to cast Kevin Brown from the Emmy Award winning sitcom 30 Rock and Lawrence Saint Victor, formerly of Guiding Light. Rounding out the cast are Ayinde Howell, Brandon Alexander, and Rashad Edwards. So, it’s great to have these actors from different styles coming together to do this project.
UC: You mention that the Haitian men see the ghost of Henry “Box” Brown. How is that symbolic?
FA: Throughout the experience, they are confronted by the ghost of Henry “Box” Brown. We learn how 1848 slavery and 1988 contemporary Haitian life are almost eerily similar. Some of the same motivation that Henry “Box” Brown [had to mail himself to freedom] is the same motivation that these men have. Obviously Henry “Box” Brown was a slave but he wasn’t allotted all of the freedom that America provided so he had to leave Virgina for Philadelphia. These gentlemen live in Haiti but they are not allotted the universal freedom that is supposed to be allotted to them so they had to find a way to go to another country.
UC: What are you hoping that this play will accomplish with regard to Haiti?
FA: I hope the play will draw attention back to a country that really needs it. You have a President in power [in Haiti] for months but he still can’t get his government into place because of the whole issue with parliament. Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in tent camps but nobody is talking about that anymore. I am hoping this play sparks the debate on what is America’s role in helping these people and what is the role of countries that have pledged money to Haiti but haven’t fulfilled their part of that pledge. The last article that I read stated that only about 25% of the money that has been pledged has been allocated to the country. I am a firm believer in what Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” So if we can put Haiti back in the news and the media and the debate continues on how to help this nation become not subservient to the United States but independent, where it is capacity building, [they will] never have to rely on the United States. That’s the conversation I hope will come out of this play.
UC: Any parting thoughts? Have you named all of the producers?
FA: The producers are Emilyn Stuart of Stuart Films, LLC, Browntown Entertainment (Kevin Brown’s company), Michaela Productions, and Fabrice J. Armand, Inc. It’s actually four producers. We are hoping that ultimately this play is not only in New York- that we can take it to other areas- whether it is Miami, Boston, or L.A. We feel that the message is strong enough to resonate in those markets.
UC: Where can people obtain more information?
FA: Visit www.boxtheplay.com, email email@example.com, and they can reach me @IamFabriceJ on Twitter. Please let me know your thoughts and your feedback. This is a play that we put a lot of thought and love into. It has been a year and a half and we are finally making it happen.
Certainly Fabrice and the other producers, actors, and production team are ecstatic about bringing this theatrical experience to the public. Performances will be held Tuesdays through Thursdays starting September 20th at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. at the Midtown Theatre at 163 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in the Broadway Theatre District, New York, NY. Opening night is September 15th. The play runs through October 6, 2011.