Friday, October 5, 2018

Once on This Island (Broadway)


Once on an island in the Antilles there lived four deities: Asaka (Alex Newell), mother of the Earth; Papa Ge (Tamyra Gray), the demon of death; Agwe (T. Oliver Reid), the god of water; and Erzulie (Darlesia Cearcy), the goddess of love. When a terrible storm hits the Caribbean, a little girl is saved from drowning, the sole survivor orphaned by a tragedy and taken in by a caring couple. She grows up as Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter), a peasant girl who gets infatuated with Daniel Beauxhomme (Tyler Hardwicke), a grand homme descended from the colonist French. As their love for each other blossoms, the possibility of them actually ending up together flounders, for the two social classes will never ever mix. Or is it a social norm that the gods can conspire to change?

Don’t fall in love with a fuckboi unless you want to turn into a tree. This seems to be the lesson that Once on This Island is trying to give its audience, at least if you disregard the story within a story’s premise as part of the island’s contemporary folklore and take everything at face value. I’m not saying that this musical is not fun because it hella is, and even then that would still be an understatement. Even so, the themes tackled by the material just seem so completely out of touch with modernity.

The subject matter of female martyrdom and giving up your life for a guy, literally or figuratively, will raise eyebrows especially in this social climate where women are up in arms for their recent social movements. The colonialist underpinning upon which the setting is established can be touchy if you have experienced living in a country that was once a colony and up to now is dealing with all the colonial BS and social stratification based on skin color that the “white saviors” have left behind after ransacking all natural resources and raping every local culture they could find there over the centuries.

The musical is sold as a love story early on, a narrative driven by destiny and romance, not logic. This explains why the tale of these two lovebirds appears so contrived because it is not allowed to naturally develop on its own as the plot unfolds. Instead, you have four meddlesome gods who interfere every step of the way. You are not supposed to analyze whether what these two characters feel for one another is legit, for the mere fact that it is fate that is responsible for their meeting after all.

But it’s just not convincing enough. Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel, with no explanation whatsoever, after seeing him drive his Mercedes around town. When she pursues him all the way to his residence, a hotel, he does not even recognize her or what she did for him. But then the goddess of love only has to work her magic and everything is fine again. Jesus Christ, these gods sure are bored with their lives. Should we ship them for the sake of shipping them? It’s not hard as long as the actors have chemistry.

It takes on a different meaning if you interpret the role of the gods as the humanized ideas that they are. Since the beginning of the human race we have always had the necessity of putting a face to abstract concepts that until now we don’t fully understand. If you view Papa Ge simply as Death and Erzulie as Love and intentionally disconnect the ideas from their anthropomorphic representations, then everything starts to make sense somehow. The two fell in love not because Erzulie, or better yet her human manifestation, wanted them to, but simply because love happened. Most of the time, we don’t have a logical explanation for that either.

Whether you agree with the musical’s take on its central themes or not, it does not really detract that much from the enjoyment that it gives. Circle in the Square is set up like a mini coliseum with a sunken stage in the middle. The oval orientation of the space lends more intimacy, add to the fact that most of the cast members treat the benches as part of their performance space. With all the daily chores unfolding onstage even before the play starts, you just don’t feel like you’re watching a musical. You feel like a part of it.

But success should be shared with everyone in the cast who just blow you away with their powerhouse vocals. All that hip-shaking along with the contagious afro-Caribbean beats just make you want to get up and dance. You WILL defo enjoy this show.

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