ONCE ON THIS ISLAND by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, with Jewelle Blackman, Chris Sams, Sabryn Rock, Arlene Duncan, Alana Hibbert and Daren A. Herbert. Presented by Acting Up Stage and Obsidian at Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East). Previews tonight (Thursday, January 23), opens Friday (January 24) and runs to February 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $35-$50, stu discounts. 1-800-838-3006.
Storytelling, the oldest form of theatre, gets a refreshing twist in Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musical Once On This Island.
Weaving together several tales for the purpose of defining and strengthening community, the narrative draws on a bit of Romeo And Juliet, a touch of Cinderella and some Caribbean deities to tell the story of Ti Moune, a young, dark-skinned peasant woman on the island of Haiti who falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a lighter-skinned and higher-class man.
With the help of several of the island's gods, she does her best to be united with her love.
"At the show's centre is a young girl frightened in a storm to whom the village recounts the story of Ti Moune and Daniel," explains Sabryn Rock, who plays Andrea, the woman to whom Daniel is engaged, as well as one of the many storytellers. "It's a story within a story, one that suggests that lessons and history are taught to the next generation in tales passed down through the years."
Andrea, like Daniel, is from the upper classes, in this case a mixed-race blend of French and Caribbean.
"At first," admits Rock, "she seems like a one-dimensional character, destined for an arranged marriage and sure of what her future will be. Ti Moune, on the other hand, can choose and fight for her destiny.
"But as I've worked with director Nigel Shawn Williams, Andrea has become more than an angry woman wondering why her man is flirting with a darker, younger woman. She's developed a sensitivity, a sympathy for Ti Moune and what she's going through. At one level, Andrea envies and respects Ti Moune's journey, the freedom she has to search for her dream."
Ti Moune does this with the help of a quartet of gods, notably Erzulie, the goddess of love, and Papa Ge, the demon of death. In fact, the two provide the show with a second set of opposites as contradictory as the two classes that make up its world.
"In Haiti's voodoo culture, hundreds of gods represent all aspects of life," says Rock, who appeared in Caroline, Or Change, the last collaboration between Acting Up Stage and Obsidian. "Ti Moune has a personal relationship with four of them and is guided to try to attain her goal."
That Haitian culture is a strong one, and Rock sees it feeding the music in Once On This Island.
"The show is one huge musical arc, the story mostly sung, but with music underlying even the spoken sections. For me, its core is a heartbeat based in calypso. There are lots of drums and other percussive sounds associated with the peasant characters, grounded and with a groovy beat.
"In contrast, the world of the Beauxhommes is more conservative, with the addition of woodwinds and piano."
That opposition is also seen in the ball scene near the end, where Ti Moune dances for the elite and reveals her roots.
"She's grounded in the earth, while the lighter-skinned characters perform a tightly wound waltz more focused on their hips. The steps tell a clear story of two different groups of people.
"That distinction reveals an important undercurrent of the show, the idea of shadeism, racism within a single group that's based on skin tone. The concept isn't specific to black culture, but Once On This Island becomes an amazing tool to think about and confront the ludicrous concept."