The Blue Rider Theater

In horror movies, voodoo is usually portrayed as a kind of poor man’s black magic–a little foolish, a little scary, but ultimately very powerful and evil. In everyday conversation, voodoo is equated with the smoke and mirrors of stage magicians, the sleight of hand that makes people fall in love or believe they’ve just experienced eight years of economic growth. And in Frommer’s Dollarwise Guide to the Caribbean, Darwin Porter groups together places tourists can gamble and places tourists can watch staged voodoo ceremonies under the same heading–“Voodoo and Nightlife.”

Donna Blue Lachman’s current show at the Blue Rider looks at voodoo from a different angle–that of a true believer. After Mountains, More Mountains is Lachman’s autobiographical account of her first visit to Haiti, in 1978, and her initiation into the mysteries of voodoo, told for the most part in the first person (with a little help from Tim Fiori and Salvatore Iacopelli, who play respectively Ghede and Ogoun, two gods from voodoo’s pantheon). After Mountains, More Mountains follows Lachman’s spiritual journey from her first glimmers of interest in voodoo as a teacher of experimental theater in Santa Cruz (where she taught “metaphysical dancing and flying”) and her spontaneous decision to go to Haiti to her eventual meeting with a mambo (voodoo priestess) willing to let her participate in voodoo ceremonies.

Along the way Lachman meets up with a number of spiritual guides, including Gerald, a Haitian lawyer and jazz musician, who shows her around Haiti and serves as her “guardian angel,” and Ghede, the loa (voodoo god) of death and crossroads (change), who warns her in a vision, “Keep your mind open–but don’t let your brains fall out.” Eventually, her brains do fall out, in a manner of speaking. She is, after all, an American in a foreign land, and it’s virtually a national trait that we Americans must break some important taboo while abroad.

In Lachman’s case, two social gaffes cut short her trip to Haiti. One was a “sweaty tropical love” affair with a man who may have been a member of Baby Doc Duvalier’s secret army, the much feared Ton-ton Macoutes. Her other, and more serious mistake, was complaining a little too loudly at a cocktail party about Baby Doc’s repressive government. Soon after the party, rumors start flying that the Ton-ton Macoutes would like to “question” Lachman. And since no one ever survives a Ton-ton Macoutes interrogation, Lachman flees the country, unable to return until “Baby Doc” falls from power eight years later.

After Mountains, More Mountains is much more than the sort of simpleminded spiritual autobiography that Shirley MacLaine is so famous for. Lachman’s story is as free of narcissism and self-indulgence as any autobiography can be expected to be. She never loses her sense of humor, nor is she afraid to laugh at her own foibles–her decision to go to Haiti was based partially on a purposely misinterpreted fortune cookie (“Bamboo stick makes good child”)–and she makes no secret of her chronic confusion and occasional lapses into complete foolishness.

In fact, her wonderful self-deprecating wit keeps her story from becoming just another heavy-handed statement that “if you don’t believe in (insert name of deity, prophet, or swami here) just like me, then you’re doomed, doomed, doomed.” But for all of its very human comedy, her story does have a serious side. Lachman maintains her focus on this journey as a spiritual one, and she isn’t blind to the social and political injustices that make Haiti a most hellish Caribbean paradise. Although she protests that she’s apolitical, she clearly has eyes that see and a heart that feels and she certainly cares a great deal about Haiti’s people.

All of which is another way of saying that Donna Blue Lachman has that rare combination of empathy and need for self-dramatization that makes for a great storyteller. Lachman could easily have performed her show alone on a bare stage, without any props, without any lights, and been almost as good. But if she’d done that we would have missed Tim Fiori’s impersonation of the growling, sarcastic trickster loa Ghede. Chomping on a big cigar, wearing top hat, greasepaint, and tails, Fiori plays the god of death and crossroads as an unholy mixture of Groucho Marx, Tom Waits, and the devil. And we would have missed Lou Mallozzi’s evocative lighting, which included a waving blue-light effect representing Erzulie, loa of love.

But most of all, we would have missed the intricate vevers Lachman created on the stage as she told her story. For the uninitiated, a vever, usually done in sand or cornmeal, is a complicated design created by a mambo or houngan (voodoo priest) to evoke the loa. In Lachman’s show, she creates three interconnected vevers, one for each of the three loas who helped her on her journey–Ghede, Ogoun, and Erzulie. Although the story could have been told without the vevers, having Lachman create the three designs before our eyes underscores her personal connection to voodoo.