Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus
There’s this consistent trope that exists in many stories typically featured on Broadway: a person falls in love with another character that has unexpectedly entered their life and against all odds, they end up happily ever after. I sat through two-thirds of Once On This Island, seeing this same storyline build up, only to be thoroughly surprised by the ending that unfolded.
As a woman, I see this across media all the time – in TV shows, movies, and more relevant to this article, plays and musicals. For example, “A Bronx Tale,” a musical about Jane, a stunning black woman, and Calogero, an Italian man from a racist Italian community in the Bronx. Despite awful racial tensions, including a scene where he drops the “N” word, the two magically work things out and end up in a “loving” relationship. Though a less extreme example in “Groundhog Day,” Rita Hansen, another successful woman, falls for the main character, Phil Connors, a man who after getting stuck reliving Groundhog Day, attempts to use the ability to emulate what he views as Rita’s ideal lover without her knowing.
Seeing these different examples where it seems characters end up relinquishing their lives and passions for a lover they barely know has always come off to me as traumatic and sad — and seeing this notion challenged in “Once on This Island” was quite meaningful for me. Relationships are meant to be hard, but they’re not meant to be traumatizing. They’re not meant to lack reciprocity and pose burdens on one of the parties. That’s quite simply unhealthy behavior.
Where “Once on This Island” shines is its uplifting collection of songs that emphasize community and belonging. Rather than just another character suddenly finding love, the show showcases a community of people so closely connected that stick together despite the adversity they face living on a small island. In particular, in the song “Part of Us,” the audience is reminded that a relationship is not the be-all end-all for the lives of women, especially women of color. In a world that consistently emphasizes the importance of intimate relationships, it was refreshing to see a musical emphasize community. Growing up in a Puerto Rican family, it was always ingrained into me that my family came first. And as I grew up and learned to embrace my Caribbean-Latina identity, it became even more obvious to me what was most important to me. Seeing Ti Moune struggle through navigating her own identities and values spoke to my own journey. While her experience doesn’t speak for everyone’s, I was happy to see another story being told.
Beyond the storyline, “Once On This Island” has an amazing cast. One of the show’s breakout stars is Alex Newell. Newell, playing the role of Asaka was absolutely radiant. In particular, his performance of “Mama Will Provide” absolutely blew me away thanks to his strong vocals and jubilance. Along with Newell was Hailey Kilgore in her Broadway debut who was a stunning Ti Moune. Her energy was tantalizing and her voice shined throughout the theater as she helped tell the story of these islanders. Overall, “Once on this Island” was fun, meaningful, and a beautifully nuanced representation of people of color and a reminder of why fostering inclusive communities matters so much.
If you’re a looking for something that will leave you feeling uplifted with a big smile on your face, this is the show to see.