On its sandy face, Once on this Island is a classic tale of magic and doomed love, but at its core, it tells a deeper story of overcoming social and racial divides. The musical, which was adapted from a book by Trinidadian novelist Rosa Guy and won the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of Musical, arrives at Theatre Under the Stars as part of its current national tour.
A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic fable The Little Mermaid with Caribbean soul, Once on This Island unfolds as a story within a story: During a storm, a group of storytellers comfort a frightened little girl by sharing an old legend. The legend is that of Ti Moune, a dark-skinned peasant who falls in love with a light-skinned aristocrat from the opposite end of the archipelago she calls home. Breaking the rules of her homeland, which dictate that these two peoples must live apart, Ti Moune journeys from her village to be with him, not knowing that her decisions and fate are at the center of a bet among the gods she worships.
We spoke to Cassondra James, who plays Erzulie, the goddess of love, about her character, the show’s beloved song “The Human Heart,” and diversity in theater.
What do you love about Erzulie?
Erzulie is the goddess of love. In this story, she plays a very instigative role. When Ti Moune asks the gods to grant her wish, it is Erzulie who convinces the other gods to give her what she wants. It is this initial act that sets up the story, which is a battle between love and death. I love that in this story, love is a subversive.
You were part of the Broadway production of this show; what's it like being on tour now?
Being on tour is a blast. The cast and crew are chock full of love and talent, and we genuinely enjoy each other’s company, which I think is evident on stage. The best part of touring, for me, is getting to experience new towns and cities across the U.S.
Your character sings a beautiful song, "The Human Heart," which explores the universal nature of human connectivity. What's it like for you to sing it every night?
Singing “The Human Heart” is a joy and an honor every night. The words have burrowed deep into my heart. I reflect on them often as I witness the ways in which we struggle, as humans, to see, accept, and love each other on this flawed, and profoundly beautiful, journey called life. In performing the song, I sing to the little girl; it is my deepest joy to get to tell a little black girl that she matters.
What's one thing you want audiences to take away from this experience?
There isn’t one thing I want people to take away from the show. In fact, I hope that people come to the show and leave having many new thoughts and conversations about a wide range of issues that are investigated in the show—love, death, sacrifice, color, colonization, class, community, and ecological devastation, to name a few.
“Once on This Island” is such a terrific piece that looks at Caribbean culture. The need for diversity in both stories and casting, has been an important discussion in the arts at large. In your opinion, why is it important that these stories get told?
As a society, we tell stories that we believe have inherent worth about people we believe have inherent worth. When we do not tell stories of black and brown people, of women, of LGBTQ communities, and of the differently abled, to name a few, what we signal is that they do not have worth. This is why I tell the story—because we are worthy.
Thru Mar 1. From $40. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-8887. More info and tickets at tuts.com