The first day Donna Blue Lachman was in Haiti, a hotel receptionist, who also happened to be a psychic, stopped her in the lobby.
"Excuse me," she said, "I'd like to tell you something if you're not too squeamish."
Lachman asked her to continue.
"I see great danger coming toward you," the woman continued. "The thing you have to do is guard your mysteries. And don't talk so much. And you must write down everything that happens to you here."
There in the lobby of the huge hotel, Lachman fainted dead away. Because she felt like the woman was right. And for the rest of her trip, she took extensive notes.
When she got back home a year later, she wanted to tell the stories of her journey, of the dangers that she had encountered. And she did--at parties and to friends--but she wasn't yet able to make a theater piece out of it.
Lachman, now artistic director of the Blue Rider Theatre, was eventually awarded a fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council to write After Mountains, More Mountains: The Haiti Stories, a play based on her experiences in Haiti that opened in March 1989. But the stories got filtered through the designers and the other actors, and it turned into a much different piece than she wanted.
"I got censored. My staff and myself censored the drug stories, the abortion stories, the really sleazy sex stuff, the confused, maniac wandering Jew. And it got watered down a little bit. And it was OK, but I always felt I hadn't really come clean. I wasn't really honest, because I was scared about my reputation, and my image, or that people would know that Donna Blue Lachman did all these drugs. Well, fuck that now."
Now 40, Lachman finally feels ready to put the stories on stage. On Saturday, she will present The Uncensored Haiti Stories, using both the stories she left out of After Mountains, More Mountains and other material from the past 20 years of her life.
While the show is named after the Haiti stories, Lachman says the other material is crucial to the performance. When she decided to actually go ahead and do this one-woman show, Lachman began to feel that though the Haiti stories were the core of the show, there was something more important she wanted to say that the stories just didn't tell.
She went back to her 20 years of journals, which recorded her trips around the world--to Nepal, Greece, Haiti--everything about them. In the first entry of the first journal was this line: "Here I am, almost 20 years old. I wonder what I'll be like in 20 years. Will I have learned anything? Will I be reading this? Will the world still be happening, or will it all end?" Lachman began to cry.
"I thought, I have never done this. I'm going to sit and read through the last 20 years of the culture as seen through my eyes and my journeys. This seems more important than even the uncensored Haiti stories."
Lachman's experiences run the gamut from the sublime to the absurd. She has lived in a tepee and in a nude commune. She has worked for Sesame Street and as a clown telling Zen stories to passersby in San Francisco. She has had a relative die of AIDS. In the show, telling those stories lets her talk about universal human experiences, like loneliness, and about cultural changes and their ramifications over the past few decades.
On one of her trips, Lachman studied in Poland with theater guru Jerzy Grotowski. It was in Poland that Lachman--who won a Joseph Jefferson Citation for her portrayal of Frida Kahlo--learned what is, for her, the essence of theater. "We talked a lot about the sacrifice: the actor being a sacrifice, and purging oneself on the stage, and all that stuff. That's what led me through all the 70s. But now I'm just beginning to know that . . . it doesn't mean ripping myself here, opening up here, pulling down my underpants. . . . It's not about that. It's about being honest and truthful."
That statement doesn't come without a lot of trepidation. Although most of Lachman's work has been autobiographical, none has been as purely so as Saturday's show. It will have no sound, no fancy lighting--just Lachman on a bare stage telling her stories.
"I've always had this thin mask for all these plays, even though everyone knows that it's Donna Blue's story. But this one, there's no mask. It's no lights, no set. It's just how much, magically, I can create the space. That's why it's a little scarier. . . . A wanderer has to go very softly into new places like this."
If Saturday's show is successful, Lachman says she might try to do a series of Monday-night shows based on stories from the journals, enhanced with music. But for now, she hopes the show will provide people with some insight into their own lives and into the past few decades.
"I don't want to do just an entertaining show. I don't have time for entertainment. I don't want to do good, I want to give good. I want to give good theater."
The Uncensored Haiti Stories will play on Saturday, July 28, at 9:15 PM at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted, as part of the Nights of the Blue Rider festival. Admission, which is $12, includes the Abiogenesis Movement Ensemble performance at 8. Reservations are recommended; call 733-4668.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.