In March I had the privilege of witnessing the revival of Once on This Island at Circle in the Square Theatre, a brilliantly told story of love, fear, sacrifice, and the freedom that eventually comes from that love. Based on the novel My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, and partially inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Little Mermaid,” Once on This Island draws upon the elements of love and sacrifice while adding a much needed narrative dealing with colonialism, colorism, and the burdens placed upon black women.
Originally performed in 1990, with a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, the musical has charmed audiences across the globe (Unfortunately that also comes along with some theaters and schools who perform the musical with a primarily or all white cast. I don’t care how much people love the show, there’s no excuse for whitewashing this story). The show was revived in 2017 by producer Ken Davenport and directed by Michael Arden, providing a refreshing look at the enchanting tale (along with a diverse and, in all aspects, a stellar cast).
Ti Moune, named Désirée Dieu Donne by her adoptive parents (but affectionately called Ti Moune “little orphan”), played by the immeasurably talented Hailey Kilgore, longs to know her purpose in life, having been saved by the gods when she was a small child. She knows she is destined for more than her life as a peasant on her side of the island, wanting to fly wherever she pleases like the white Mercedes of the grande homme who race down the roads. The gods hear her prayers, and grant her request, and satisfy a few ulterior motives of their own.
Erzulie: Beautiful Goddess of Love, played by Broadway veteran Lea Salonga, claims that love is stronger than any other element in the world, even death, much to the chagrin of Papa Ge: the Demon of Death portrayed by American Idol finalist and actor Tamyra Gray. They make a wager to see whether or not Ti Moune will prove Erzulie right. Thus the gods bring together the two worlds of the peasants and grand homme on a rainy and windswept night (thanks to the powers of Agwé, played by Quentin Earl Darrington, but for this particular performance I had the pleasure of seeing David Jennings play the God of Water) causing Daniel Beauxhomme, played by Isaac Powell in his fabulous and charming Broadway debut, to crash his car. Ti Moune saves his life, as the Mermaid saves the prince from his shipwreck, and ultimately falls in love with him after deciding that her purpose in life is to save and love the young man.
Eventually Daniel is taken back to his parents’ hotel on the other side of the island, and Ti Moune sets out on her journey. No one know exactly how she gets to the other side of the island, but we know she has help from Asaka: Mother of the Earth (portrayed by the incredible powerhouse that is Alex Newell), and eventually makes her way to the city of the grande homme. Ti Moune heals Daniel and eventually becomes his lover, much to the dismay of the Beauxhommes and city dwellers, who revile the young girl for her dark skin; However, when Ti Mount dances at the Hotel Beauxhomme’s ball, like the Little Mermaid, she wins the favor of the partygoers. Unfortunately, like the mermaid, she loses her love to another. Instead of a princess, Daniel is engaged to Andrea Devereaux, a grande homme who has just returned from Paris.
Heartbroken, Ti Moune is given an ultimatum by Pape Ge (as the Sea Witch did for the Mermaid): Kill Daniel and regain her old life “as if she had never loved at all.” She grabs the knife Papa Ge gives her, but then drops it, telling Daniel that she loves him. Ti Moune is cast out of the Hotel Bueaxhomme and she descends into sorrow, abandoned by the people who were so enamored with her. The gods “wept tears of compassion” for her, for she proved that love was stronger than any other element, and could survive even in the face of death. Through her sacrifice, Ti Moune is allowed to die peacefully in the sea before being reborn as a goddess. Her body is transformed into a beautiful tree that clings to the walls of the Hotel Beauxhomme, ensuring its gates will never shut anyone out again.
The Jewel of the Antilles (the name of the Island, which is also read as Haiti) represents a divide caused by the hatred, violence, and ignorance of a white colonialist. So how can the island and its people find healing? It was Ti Moune. All her life she questioned her purpose and why the gods saved her. She thought her destiny was so save and love Daniel, but that was only one part of her fate. The Storytellers explain that the tree (which Ti Moune dreamed of having in her garden when she and Daniel would get married) she transformed into sheltered both peasants and grande homme. One day, Daniel’s son saw a beautiful young peasant girl sitting in the tree, gazing out at the world. In that moment, Ti Moune’s love and sacrifice helped unite the island, bridging class, color, and gender. That is why they tell the story, it is about love, hate, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
In comparison with “The Little Mermaid,” there are several important distinctions that need to be made. The first is the aspect of colonialism and colorism that the musical deals with. The grand homme are born of violent oppression, as General Armand (a French invader) sexually assaulted many of his slaves. The song “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes” details the history of the colorism on the island as well as its racial divides, which concludes with Armand cursing his son, Beauxhomme, and his descendants. The grande homme are bound to the island by their Black heritage, while their hearts yearn for France. This is why the grande homme hate and resent the peasants, for they are a reminder of the grande hommes' blackness as well as the trauma caused by General Armand and his soldiers.
"The Little Mermaid," on the other hand, is more or less a tale of longing for freedom (and to have a soul), followed by an unrequited love. First and foremost, it is important to recognize that both the Mermaid and Ti Moune long for freedom and adventure first, the love for their prince/grande homme comes second. When the Mermaid sacrifices herself instead of the prince, she becomes a Daughter of the Air in order to earn her human soul after 300 years of service to the world’s children. The tale itself could be a metaphor for Andersen’s unrequited love for another man, but overall it is a story of sacrifice (and not very feminist). It’s also a case of mistaken identity, as the Prince thinks that a nearby Princess was the one who saved him, rather than the Mermaid. Ti Moune’s rejection is purely based on classism and colorism, which she breaks down through her sacrifice. The production itself also offers a more intersectional representation, including gender neutral casting (namely Tamyra Gray and Alex Newell), creating a near all encompassing and inclusive experience for actors and audiences alike.
After the performance, I sat and pondered for a while and pondered what type of goddess Ti Moune had become. Was she a minor deity of love? A tree goddess (which of course could come to represent other things)? Erzulie governs love, but Ti Moune was close to her, so it has to be something akin to love. It was at this moment that I realized the true significance of Ti Moune’s destiny. In sacrificing herself, eventually uniting peasant and grande homme, she broke General Armand’s curse. To quote the Storytellers, “And the spirit of Ti Moune touched their hearts and set them free to love. And she stands against the lightning and the thunder, and she shelters and protects us from above, and she fills us with the power and wonder of her love.” Ti Moune freed her people from the curse of the colonizer, bringing them together through love, freeing them of their pain and resentment for each other, and allowing them to move forward as a united people. Ti Moune is a Goddess of Freedom, freedom to love, to explore, and to live, which, like the Little Mermaid, is all she ever wanted.
Open your mind, be brave, and be kind.
To See With One's Body and Soul
This blog documents all of my adventures, as well as my development into an artist, writer, and a better person.