Love, Racism, and the Strange Politics of ‘Once On This Island’
It’s beautifully sung and staged, but ‘Once On This Island’ ends by betraying its heroine, and shoring up the structures of race that have acted against her. (Contains spoilers.)
The Caribbean music of Once On This Island is so exuberant and beautifully performed that it is only at the end you realize what a tragic tale has been told to you, with the overarching message that nothing is bigger than death. Death cannot be defied, it cannot be made better by love. When death comes for you, that is it.
So director Michael Arden, choreographer Camille A. Brown, and music supervisor Chris Fenwick have quite the job sugaring such a bitter pill in this 90-minute musical.
They are obviously helped by Lynn Ahrens’ book and lyrics and Stephen Flaherty’s music—which major on the love and idealism of lead character Ti Moune (the magnetic and brilliant Hailey Kilgore), as she battles the elements and gods to achieve love with Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell) on an island in the French Antilles.
First performed on Broadway in 1990, this a classic Romeo and Juliet tale: Daniel is mixed race and from a rich family with its roots in the white French aristocracy that had come to the island many years before. Ti Moune is poor, black, and an orphan, and she falls in love with Daniel when he has a car crash on her side of the island. It is then that, to save his life, she makes a fateful deal with Death (or Pape Ge, played by Merle Dandridge) that will sacrifice her own.
For most of the musical, you are utterly enveloped and enchanted. The audience watches the performers in the round, and so Dane Laffrey’s wonderful design (illuminated by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s effective lighting) really does feel like an island, with its floor of sand, pool of water, upturned boats, and simple corrugated gates, which effectively act as barriers to Ti Moune and Daniel.
Chandeliers descend and a carpet materializes when she goes to the city to find him. There is even a live goat, who amazingly does not freak out with all the music.
Around Ti Moune are Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Alex Newell, who sings the fabulously life-giving “Mama Will Provide”), Agwe, God of Water (Quentin Earl Darrington), Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Lea Salonga), and the fearsome Dandridge. It is the latter who covets Ti Moune’s spirit most; Dandridge scarily prowls and seethes around the young woman.
There is no notion why Ti Moune has been singled out in this way. She herself in an orphan saved from a storm, and the story itself places the entirety of its misery on her.
There is a pronounced back story encompassing race and class; the Beauxhomme family appear like archetypal imperialists, whose white ancestors had sex with slaves on the island.
Beauxhomme, the biracial son of one such ancestor, Armand, banished Armand back to France; Armand then cursed him and the future generations of Beauxhommes, and their relationships with the peasants. This complicated history is played out by figures behind an illuminated shroud.
Oh, the singing. Kilgore’s voice is pure and resonant, Philip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller, as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents, who worry for her safety, sing beautifully too, their warmth and love for Ti Moune feel as an all-encompassing musical blanket by the audience too. Salonga is the perfect “good witch” of Love counterpart to Dandridge’s malevolence.
If the music is wonderful—truly, every song—and the direction brimming with life and originality, what jars in Once On This Island is the story. Race, racism and colonialism are examined in the musical but glancingly, and then there is—as in Miss Saigon—the simple and strange truth that the lead male character is a prize shit. He is not the man for Ti Moune; you don’t want them to end up together.
Daniel is happy to have Ti Moune around as a sexy nurse after the car-crash; then for her to dance for him, but lies to her that he is in fact committed to another. The heartbreak of their separation is endured by her only, and the last minutes of the story are plain tragic and awful, with the resolution—spoiler alert, that, for all her pains, in death Ti Moune becomes a bloody tree, or the embracing spirit of said tree and hey, we all should embrace the power of stories—supposed to make us feel better. It doesn’t.
It’s a terrible ending, not because it isn’t happy, but because it ill-serves the soaring music that has gone before it. Daniel doesn’t resist any of the social forces against his romance with Ti Moune, he goes along with them.
Ti Moune deserves better than to die and become a symbolic piece of wood. And it’s hardly original that a piece of fiction tells us about the power of stories to provide emotional sustenance.
It is weird to reach the end of a musical that wants us to effectively cheer the maintenance of classism, racism, and female subjugation, and also leave us cheerily going out into the night. But that’s the strange emotional place Once On This Island leaves us, once its beautifully sounding storm has abated.
Once On This Island is at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W 50th St., NYC. Book tickets here.