FELIX MORISSEAU-Leroy was one of Haiti’s popular heroes. Through his poems, plays and articles, he was the person who made Creole, the language spoken by ordinary men and women in Haiti, as acceptable as the French taught in schools. It was thanks in no small part to his efforts that Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared it an official language when he became president in 1991, at a ceremony where Morisseau-Leroy was one of the guests of honour.
He was born in Grand Gosier, near the historic southern port of Jacmel, in 1912. His family were well-to-do mulattos, and he learnt both French and later English. It was in Jacmel that he met his wife Renee, who said she admired his prowess as a horseman; he responded that she was the main inspiration for his literature.
In the 1940s, after studying at graduate school at Columbia University in New York, he taught in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. It was then that he became interested in the Creole language spoken in the streets, but rarely written down. The end of the decade was one of the few periods in Haitian history when new ideas could flourish in relative freedom, and Morisseau-Leroy used the opportunity to write political poems and sketches.
But it was in 1953 with his production of the classical Greek tragedy Antigone in his own Creole version that Morisseau-Leroy really made his mark. The play was set in a rural Haitian village, with King Creon portrayed as a powerful voodoo priest. This was the first time that many Haitians realised that their oral language was capable of nuance, analysis and profundity.
Unfortunately, the 1950s also saw the Duvalier family take power in Haiti, and any chance for free expression was soon snuffed out. When Morisseau- Leroy was offered the chance of putting on Antigone in Creole in Paris, he went to France and decided to stay there, fearing he would be arrested if he returned to Haiti.
Then began an unsettled period which saw him teaching in France, Nigeria and later Ghana and Senegal, where he was important in promoting popular theatre movements. By 1981, he had moved to Miami, and was welcomed by the Haitian exile community, already creating a lively culture of their own. He was hailed as the forerunner of many of their efforts; as one of them said on his death: “He realised that for people to understand the problems, they need to be taught in their own language, not a language they don’t understand. Otherwise, they’re being mystified, they’re being shown a lack of respect.”
Despite encroaching blindness, Morisseau-Leroy continued to write a weekly column about Haiti in the periodical Haiti en Marche. He returned briefly to Haiti after the fall of the Duvaliers in 1986, and attended Aristide’s inauguration in 1991. But apart from these short trips, he preferred the memories of his home country, which he put into the work of which he was most proud: an epic novel called Les Djons d’Haiti Tom (“People of Haiti with Courage”), in which he tells the story of the people of his own town Jacmel from the time of the US invasion of 1915 to the ousting of President Aristide in 1991.
The novel was published three years ago; but perhaps the most fitting tribute to Felix Morisseau-Leroy and his influence was the staging earlier this year of his Creole version of Antigone to a packed audience in a Miami theatre: the kind of mixture of races, traditions, and languages to which he devoted his life.
Felix Morisseau-Leroy, poet and playwright: born Grand Gosier, Haiti 1912; married (two sons, one daughter); died Miami, Florida 5 September 1998.