VIDEO: 'Once On This Island' singers on race, colorism and identity
Seldom does BroadwayWorld.com review a show produced and conceived on stage in Buffalo. But for Shea’s 710 Theater’s current production of “Once On This Island,” reviewer Michael Rabice wrote, "The story of class struggle seems timeless, and resonates even deeper today in Buffalo where class distinctions, race relations and social inequalities are felt on a daily basis in 2022.”
“Once On This Island” tells a story of race, colorism, and colonialism, through an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s — and not Disney’s — "The Little Mermaid."
It features peasant girl Ti Moune on a darker skinned side of Caribbean island, in love with Daniel, a richer paler man from over the mountains. Like Ariel the Mermaid, she rescues him, but must bargain with gods over her identity to secure a better future for them both.
Ansari and several cast members — seen singing in the video clip above — discussed the themes ning on WBFO’s “Buffalo, What’s Next?" — our daily discussion about race and related issues that sprung from the Tops shooting on May 14.
The locally-cast show is directed by Niala Ansari, a noted national choreographer and dancer who teaches Theater, and Africana Studies at SUNY Buffalo State College.
“The idea that most people take away is that it's this love story about a pleasant Black, dark-skinned woman who falls in love with a light-skinned man on the other side of the island. And it goes into this whole idea of classism and colorism,” Ansari said.
“And you know, I won't give the end of the play away, but it talks about this journey of this Black peasant girl trying to get to the other side of what we think is affluent, what we think is going to be the better part of the island because they have money. But they have a really dark history because what a lot of times gets displaced from the place is really about colonialism. And it's about how white supremacy has really divided us not just in terms of class and black people but in terms of colorism in the ways in which we love one another,” Ansari said.
Originally on Broadway in the early 1990s, the musical by Lynne Ahrens, with music by Stephen Flaherty, has been re-imagined by Ansari to put the show in a contemporary yet timeless setting.
“I wanted to make sure that the Black woman gets lifted because so often we're seen as like the protectors of everybody and the nurturers in a lot of ways. That's who we are because we hold our homes together, we hold our communities together, but we often don't get the love back. And so I wanted to make sure that in this show, we talk about white supremacy in a way and colonialism and how it affects us as people of color and creates these divisions in these two different worlds."
Buffalo actress Zhanna Reed, 24, portrays Ti Moune and echoes BroadwayWorld’s Rabice, saying that, after the racist massacre at Tops Market killed 10 Black people on Jefferson Avenue, the arts have a way of healing and raising certain truths.
"It opens up these discussions and these conversations through the Spirit first, right? Because it's music, it's song, it's story. And then it unlocks something that sometimes you don't know why," Reed said. "A lot of times we leave the show, and the people are bawling. ... I gave a woman a hug the other night, and it was just tears and … it's just that moment of release."
“I know for a fact we are doing something powerful with the show, and with the people that enter into the space who see the story, who hear the story, who feel the story, because art and spirit are will always be intertwined and I believe that's how we open up the conversation," Reed said.
Marcus Paige (The God of Water) emphasizes the colorism that divides Ti Moune’s island and isolates her from her lighter skinned love interest.
"I think the biggest thing with the show that we try to get across is that this is a community. Yeah, this is a community of people that deal with inequalities, economic inequalities, racism, things like that. But what's interesting about it is that there are no white people in this show. So it's not a black versus white situation. This is very much an insular thing the big thing that we want to get across is that this is one community and so we can experience those inequalities and that hatred within our community, but we really need to understand that we are one, and there is no progress, if we hold down one … if one person is not free, we are all are not free," Paige said.
"And so I think that's the biggest thing we take away from this is, we sing the song together, we dance together, we are celebrating together, we are one community. And we hold so much power when we realize that we're one community and not separated by things like color, and the shades of our skin," Paige said.
This production marks the first time Shea’s Performing Arts Center has produced a musical for themselves, rather than bringing in a touring company of someone else’s production. The production includes a crew and production team comprised almost totally of women of color.
“A lot of times we have theater (being produced) in Buffalo, but it's also very white," Ansari said. " And so to be able to have an entire cast of black and brown folks that are singing, that are acting, that are dancing that are doing the thing at the highest quality and excellence was something that was important for me. ... We're not just going to give a show for black folks just because it meets our diversity quota, or it meets something that we can say, ‘Oh, see, we're being diverse.'"
The cast includes two 16-year-old twins from Buffalo. Shylah Douglas as Little Ti Moune and Samyah Douglas as Little Charm Girl. Of them, WBFO’s Theater Talk host Anthony Chase wrote in a recent Buffalo News review that they “are given the chance to steal a little bit of the show for themselves” and “charm their way into our hearts with impressively professional performances."
They tell WBFO that while more acting is a long-term career goal for them both, this show’s message is also important in the meantime now.
“This story tells us a lot about the past and how things still are today, about being diverse. And I want the audience to take away the fact that times are changing. But they're also in a way still staying the same,” Shylah Douglas said.
Added sister Samyah, “I want the audience to know that the Black girl in the show, she is supposed to be forgotten, but in our production, she is remembered and she is thriving even in her afterlife.”
The production runs through Sunday, Oct. 2, at Shea’s 710 Main Street Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays