Once on This Island made me feel foolish. Though it may make me sound arrogant, at the outset of plays, movies and books, I can often tell where the story is going to go; a few scenes into the action and I see a vista of clichés stretching out ahead of me, and I sigh with disappointment. And perhaps I get a bit too self-satisfied knowing that, once again, I’ve deciphered the plot when the thing’s barely even started. Like some kind of God of Narrative. A douchebag, yes, but also a god! Once on This Island made me feel foolish because my early predictions about the musical were almost all wrong. It surpassed my expectations. It bested me. Well played, musical. Well played.
For their 10th-anniversary season, Acting Up Stage Company has joined with Obsidian Theatre Company for a new production of Once on This Island. It is the story of forbidden love on an island divided by class and race in the French Antilles. With the reluctant encouragement of the gods, the dark-skinned Ti Moune falls in love with the lighter-skinned, upper-class Daniel. The division between the island’s peoples, as well as Ti Moune’s forbidden love for Daniel, are established early on. I immediately thought of Romeo and Juliet, and part of me settled in for a tired story about star-crossed lovers.
I was wrong in two important ways. First, the class distinction on the island is the result of colonization by Europeans, but the effects of colonization are more nuanced than one might expect. Two, Ti Moune and Daniel are sort of star-crossed lovers, and love does kind of bridge their two worlds, but not in the Disney-ish way these things usually play out. If I’m vague, it’s only to avoid giving spoilers.
Given this is Xtra, readers might be surprised to hear that Ti Moune and Daniel are female and male. I know, it’s strange, but the straights do occasionally fall in love. The queer content, I suppose, is the forbidden love — we’ve all been through that — and that it’s a big frothy musical with beautiful singing and dancing. It doesn’t get much queerer than that. It’s also a great way to celebrate Black History Month. If it weren’t for the stinging, acidlike winter winds that ripped off much of my face on the way to the theatre, the experience would have been flawless, but I suppose I can’t blame the cast for the weather (as much as I might want to). And the part of my face that didn’t get ripped off enjoyed and recommends the musical immensely.