Once On This Island is a joyous, lively, and very entertaining musical which blends folkloric tales with colonial history.
The story is set on the French colonial Caribbean island of Haiti where the gods are revered, and fellow mankind are reviled because of the shade of their skin. Ti Moune is a peasant girl who aids Daniel after an accident that was willed by the gods. She negotiated with the god of death to spare his life in exchange for hers in spite of him being an oppressor.
Feeling deprived of a life purpose, she tasks herself with healing the injured man with her healing powers and hopes that he will fall in love with her… regardless of her social status and darker skin.
All the singing and choreography is sensational and I was carried away to an enchanting world.
The musical is exciting to watch with all the expected feel-good fuzziness of a fairy tale; there’s a protagonist to root for, larger-than-life characters and catchy harmonious songs.
However, upon closer reflection, as with most fairy tales, there are unexplored problematic issues. Take Goldilocks or Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk) for instance, both protagonists are guilty of trespassing, yet we disregard the problem and shut the book with a dreamy smile after reading that “they lived happily ever after”. Once On This Island presents us with the issue of colourism and classism as well as glorifying servitude in the guise of saviorism and people-pleasing.
Daniel and his family reject Ti Moune after she had restored him. He marries a fair-skinned woman who had been predestined to him in order to maintain the family’s high status. Meanwhile, Ti Moune is reduced to a mere entertainer when summoned to perform a dance for a gathering of gawping elites before grovelling to Daniel to reciprocate her love.
In the mix with all these fairy tale components is a fascinating and compressed history lesson of Haiti’s colonial past delivered through the song The Sad Tale of The Beauxhommes and the use of oversized puppetry.
I loved the colourful costumes which reflected Caribbean vibrancy, especially the ones worn by the gods
On entering the outdoor auditorium the set seemed unassuming but yielded many wow factors like real flames around the stage and flood. The lighting was more vivid as night fell on Regent’s Park. I loved the colourful costumes which reflected Caribbean vibrancy, especially the ones worn by the gods.
All the singing and choreography is sensational and I was carried away to an enchanting world. It’s hard to pick a favourite number, but I loved the commanding song by the gods Pray and the gossip-infused Some Say. I found the scene with the large puppet hilarious and impressive.
Special mention goes to Gabrielle Brooks for her incredible vocals and her nuanced performance as Ti Moane. She brought many layers to the role – endearing, defiant and cringingly desperate. I wanted to see a vengeful side to the character after being rejected, alas the happy-ending resolution of the narrative prohibited that.
Child actor Nielle Springer‘s confidence on stage also stood out for me amongst the astonishing cast. She’s definitely one to look out for in the future.
No doubt this production is enjoyable however its overall message is somewhat disempowering to dark-skinned girls on one hand, but on the other offers an opportunity to have discussions on dignity and having high aspirations afterwards. Considering that we’re at a time of confronting colourism and classism within the Black community worldwide and how short this musical is, the story itself could afford new developments to instil important lessons on identity and self-worth.