Leyla McCalla
Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever

Leyla McCalla

Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever


Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever is a multidisciplinary performance set to new music by Haitian-American singer-songwriter Leyla McCalla and directed by Kiyoko McCrae, both New Orleans-based artists. The project received its world premiere in Durham, NC on March 4-6, 2020, at the Rubenstein Arts Center’s von der Heyden Studio Theater. Commissioned by Duke Performances, the project explores the legacy of Radio Haiti-Inter, Haiti’s first privately owned Creole-speaking radio station, and the assassination of its owner, Jean Dominique, in 2000. The title is derived from a proverb used by Dominique to describe the spirit of Haiti’s marginalized poor in the face of violence and political oppression.

Breaking the Thermometer weaves together storytelling, dance, video projection, and audio recordings from Duke’s Radio Haiti Archive with McCalla’s own compositions and arrangements of traditional Haitian songs. Through this juxtaposition of voices — the personal and political, the anecdotal and the journalistic — McCalla gives expression to the enduring spirit of Haiti’s marginalized poor in the face of several centuries of political oppression. She pays homage along the way to the activists like Dominique who have fought, often at great personal cost, to amplify these unheard voices.

In telling this story, McCalla also lends her own voice to a tradition of Haitian-American activism spanning three generations within her family. Her father, Jocelyn McCalla, served as executive director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights from 1988 to 2006. Her mother, Régine Dupuy, is the founder of Dwa Fanm, an anti-domestic violence human rights organization, and the daughter of Ben Dupuy, one of Haiti’s foremost radical journalists, who from 1983 until 1991 ran Haïti Progrès, a New-York based Haitian socialist newspaper.

Beginning literally in darkness, with a recorded conversation between McCalla and her mother, McCalla embarks on a journey of remembrance and self-discovery, connecting her earliest childhood memories of Haiti with political events whose historical reverberations she lacked the context to understand at the time. Coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of Dominique’s assassination on April 3, 2000, Breaking the Thermometer also presents a timely affirmation of the importance of a free press capable of speaking truth to power: one that stands to resonate broadly in our current political landscape, where the efforts of journalists are increasingly discredited by officials at the highest levels of elected office.

Breaking the Thermometer is the latest installment in Duke Performances’ ongoing From the Archives initiative — following Jenny Scheinman’s Kannapolis, Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee, and Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues — in which performing artists create works engaging archival materials from Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Radio Haiti Archive is contained within the broader Human Rights Archive at Duke. Over two years, McCalla and McCrae, with guidance from Duke professor and Haiti specialist Laurent Dubois and Radio Haiti project archivist Laura Wagner, have mined this archive for recordings that showcase the impact of Radio Haiti-Inter on Haitian cultural and political history.

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In making Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, I set out to understand Radio Haiti in the broader context of Haitian history and the political forces that shaped it. What I discovered along the way is that the breadth and scope of this history is larger than one theater piece can explain. Making art has limitations. It feels reductive to present a narrative as the whole truth when in fact there are several truths, several narratives, at turns conflicting and almost always subjective. What my collaborators and I have created is something that feels like the beginning of me understanding my relationship to Haiti and why it is important for me to continue to make work that engages this question. This is where my story begins.

— Leyla McCalla


Directed and produced by Kiyoko McCrae

Music written, arranged and performed by Leyla McCalla

Sound and Projection Design by Kyle Sheehan

Story developed by Leyla McCalla, Kiyoko McCrae & Kyle Sheehan

Choreographed and performed by Sheila Anozier

Drumming and percussion by Jeff Pierre & Shawn Meyers

Lighting Design and Technical Direction by Jo Nazro

Set Design by Jebney Lewis

Dramaturgy by Laura Wagner

Duke Performances at Duke University is the lead commissioner of Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever. Co-commissioners include the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans and MDC Live Arts – Miami Dade College. Development residency support and space provided by the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans. Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever is made possible, in part, with a grant from the MAP Fund, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; a grant from New Music USA, made possible by annual program support and/or endowment gifts from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Baisley Powell Elebash Fund, and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation; a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation; and a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever is a National Performance Network (NPN) Creation & Development Fund Project co-commissioned by Duke Performances at Duke University, the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, MDC Live Arts – Miami Dade College, and NPN. The Creation & Development Fund is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Special thanks to the Human Rights and Radio Haiti archives at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University for serving as the research site and partner on Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, and to the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University.




Kiyoko McCrae

Mel Puljic

Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever is available for national and international touring in Spring 2020 and beyond.