What it's about.
Once On This Island is the story of the Caribbean and of a girl named Ti Moune. It’s about understanding where you’re from, chasing what you believe in, and the struggles that emerge when those two clash.
Is it possible to be both uplifted and crushed at the same time? I had both of those feelings as I watched Once On This Island. I was taken by surprise at the stage itself - I hadn’t read anything about the show beforehand, as to avoid any spoilers, so imagine my surprise when the stage turned out to be sand! There was a freaking river in the theater too! I had never experienced any stage like this.
One thing that happened was the actors and actresses trickle onto the stage and began interacting with the audience and each other. I didn’t get a chance to chat with any of the cast, but that’s mostly because there were two cute little girls in front of me who deservedly got most of the attention. There was also a goat and a chicken on stage and food being cooked real time (although I’m not sure if anyone actually ate it). Nevertheless, it was unlike any other Broadway experience. I was really digging it!
Coming at it from an outsider’s perspective, on the surface the story seems to be an uplifting and hopeful one. In many ways, the story resembles the narrative of the Caribbean itself with an attractive glittering surface that attracts wide-eyed tourists who gawk at the island’s natural beauty and colonial architecture. But on the flipside, there’s the deeply rooted racism and classism that props up the gleaming surface by subjugating the (usually) dark-skinned native-born populations.
In the main love story, the female lead, Ti Moune, is an Afro-Caribbean girl who falls for a French boy named Daniel. Her unwavering love is heartwarming. However, when put in context, it’s really quite naïve. She’s chasing a dream, which is something that American cultures encourages, but her hope is not rewarded in this story. Her wistfulness is discouraged by those she loves. It ultimately causes her a lot of suffering.
It’s all about perspective - it’s easy to come to the island and feel joy and exuberance, as well as sadness and despondency. This play is what you make of it, and for me, there was a little bit of both. I wanted to hope - but not too much. I cheered for Ti Moune, but I couldn’t imagine her dreams coming true no matter how much I wanted them to.
Ben's girlfriend: Speaking of perspective, it’s interesting to note how differently I saw this show despite sitting next to Ben. Without a doubt, this was influenced by my own personal history, given that my parents come from the Caribbean. They were born in Guyana and came to New York City in the 90’s. Me? I was born and raised in Queens. As a first generation Guyanese-American, I was more than thrilled to see this play. It’s very rare that I get to see any depictions of the vast Caribbean in art, especially on such a big stage.
It did not disappoint. Upon walking in, I immediately had flashbacks to the first (and only) time I visited Guyana. I was seven years old and had only ever seen New York City. Imagine my surprise when we left the airport and I was suddenly walking on nothing but sand. I remember everything being so dingy, so sandy, so….old? And everyone seemed to wear normal but outdated American clothing. That memory, something that I hadn’t thought about in years, was replicated almost exactly on stage. Imagine my surprise when I realized they had also built in a river as well! I watched one of the cast members arrive on stage after wading through the river, with water dripping from his knees down and thought about the river by my father’s house in Guyana - the one that I had played in when I had visited.
Perhaps, what struck me the most about this play, was how it truly encapsulated the spirit of being from the Caribbean. When the cast members came out to mingle with the audience before the show, it felt unmistakably real and not like a cheesy theater ploy. I know that because I know that sense of community well - it’s my community too. The entirety of the play revolved around Ti Moune leaving the poor community that raised her for the one that she hoped would accept her, all for the sake of love. Watching her struggle between these worlds mirrored a lot of my own struggle between my own identities, being American by citizenship and Guyanese by descent. I laughed when she succeeded and felt my heart break when reality knocked her down. I was captivated by the authentic representation of what it really means to be from the Caribbean.
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