When we began discussing which performance we’d be doing this year, our choices where Mama Mia or Beauty and the Beast, and both of those were shot down. Mama Mia because there is a gay character and the mom doesn’t know who the dad is, and Beauty and the Beast because in the recent movie remake there was a gay character. Looking back I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad this school is so conservative.
Almost a year ago now, Mr. Patton recommended that I listen to the song “Human Heart” from the Once on This Island revival. I listened to it, and remember almost crying because it was just such a beautiful, pure song, describing love to a little girl (and the fact that the fabulous Lea Salonga sang it made it even better). I had no idea at the time that I would even be lucky enough to get the chance to sing it as Erzulie, the goddess of love.
Quick synopsis (spoilers!!!)
During a storm, a young girl cries out with fear. To comfort her, the village storytellers tell her the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who falls in love with a grand homme, Daniel Beauxhomme. In this story, four gods (Asaka Mother of the Earth, Agwe: god of Water, Erzulie : goddess of Love, and Papa Ge: sly demon of Death) rule an island where poor peasants worship them. The peasants, “black as night”, live on one side of the island, and the grands hommes, lighter-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves, live on the other. One day, Agwe unleashes a storm upon the island wiping out many villages. However, the gods save the life of a little orphan named Ti Moune by placing her in a tree above the flood’s waves. She is found and subsequently adopted by the peasants Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian.
Years afterwards, a grown-up Ti Moune prays to the gods to let her know her purpose, and why she was saved. Hearing her plea, the gods laugh at her. However, Erzulie says to give her love, because it is stronger than any of the other elements. Offended, Papa Ge proposes a bet to prove which is stronger: love or death. Agwe arranges for the car of Daniel Beauxhomme, a young grande homme, to crash during a storm so that Ti Moune may meet Daniel and restore him to health. Despite the objections of the other peasants including her own parents, Ti Moune helps the intruder recover. Ti Moune falls in love with the stranger and as she cares for the unconscious boy, she imagines he loves her too. When Papa Ge comes to take Daniel’s life, Ti Moune offers her life in exchange for Daniel’s so that he will not die.
Tonton travels to the other side of the Island to seek Daniel’s family at the Hotel Beauxhomme. Ti Moune is tearfully separated from Daniel and tells her parents that she will go after Daniel to marry him. Ti Moune’s parents reluctantly let her go. During her travels, she encounters the goddess Asaka who tells her not to fear as the Earth will give her everything she needs on her journey to Daniel. Daniel, still ill and unable to walk, does not remember her but believes her after she describes the scar on his chest. As they stay together, Erzulie gives them the gift of love. Daniel delights in Ti Moune’s differences from the rich girls in his life, noting that “some girls you marry, some you love”.
At a ball held at the hotel, Andrea Deveraux, a daughter of Daniel’s family friends, talks Ti Moune into dancing for them. Ti Moune dances and gains the admiration of the rich society members. Afterwards, Ti Moune learns that Daniel is engaged to be married to Andrea. Daniel, reminded of his responsibilities, must go through with the arranged marriage, although he insists they can be lovers forever. Ti Moune is crushed. Papa Ge reappears and reminds Ti Moune of her promise to exchange her life for Daniel’s – but says she can revoke the bargain if she kills Daniel. Ti Moune enters Daniel’s room with a knife, but she still loves him too much to kill him – proving love is stronger than death. However, Daniel finds Ti Moune with the knife. Appalled at the attempted murder, the Beauxhommes throw her out of the hotel grounds.
She waits for days to meet Daniel at the gate. As Daniel and Andrea are married, they follow an old tradition of throwing coins to the peasants outside the hotel gates. Ti Moune calls to Daniel who gently places a silver coin in Ti Moune’s hand, kisses her cheek, and leaves. The storytellers tell how Erzulie took her by the hand and led her to the ocean where Agwe allowed her to drown peacefully. Papa Ge received her gently and brought her back to shore where Asaka transformed her into a tree.
The tree becomes a celebration of life and love that cracks open the gates of the hotel, allowing those of all social statuses to become one. The storytellers share with them a retelling of the story how a peasant girl proved the power of love could bring together the people of the island. It helps us to remember, to forgive – and out of what we live and we believe, our lives become the stories that we weave. As the musical ends, the little girl who was frightened by the storm begins to retell the story herself.
We began casting last September, knowing full well that this would not be an easy production. Mulan Jr last year was no easy feat and at times we nearly didn’t complete it, and this is no Jr show. Once on This Island (OOTI for short) was originally performed on Broadway in 1990, and the revival went from 2017 to early this year. This is a Broadway show. We knew way back then that we’d have our hands full. What we didn’t expect was for everyone to throw themselves so wholeheartedly into it. Once we got people to listen to the soundtrack just once, they were hooked.
I think that one of the reasons this musical resonated so deeply with so many of us here in Nigeria is because West Africa has so much influence on the Caribbean, where OOTI is set. ‘Lumi, an eleventh grader who has been involved in theatre for several years said “These ties I feel make this musical easy to connect with for a lot of us as actors, as we are able to hear the African origins the music with the heavy drumming for example, making it easier to remember tunes and dance along… Sometimes watching the play, it feels like I’m sitting at home watching an African Magic musical. I love that we aren’t trying to make the show 100% Carribean-like because apart from the fact that many of us don’t know that this would look like, I sincerely feel that the show is helping each and every one of us connect a little more with our host country, Nigeria, whether it’s in trying out a new dance step or attempting to speak ‘Nigerian’ (because yes, that is a thing).”
With this being not only my last performance here at AISL, but also the Patton’s last year as well, we knew we needed to make this performance extra special. We spent so many hours of our lives at rehearsal, trying to perfect every line and action. Trying to do this amazing musical justice. In the end, I think we did it. We vloged our way through rehearsals, sharing just a little bit of our daily lives with the rest of the world before releasing the trailer.
And finally, we dropped the Once on This Island trailer
As April 12 grew closer we collected the rest of our set, our costumes, and our free time, and donated it to this production. Rehearsals every few days became every other day, became every day, and before I knew it, the day before the show arrived. This year we had the fantastic idea of going to Terra Kulture a day early to set up and run through instead of the day of the first performance. With everyone’s help the set was up in no time, and although it just looks like a pile of junk, you can bet each piece of trash was placed there for a reason.
Everyone worked so very hard, Janelle staying up late, painstakingly creating papier-mâché masks. Oriane spending hours in the heat teaching the dancers the difficult choreography (that they absolutely nailed by the way). The ensemble repeating the same song again and again until we got it right.
The band this year wasn’t given the music in time to perform it with us, but they worked so hard they didn’t want to just forget it, so they decided to do a pre-show performance of 9 songs, a lot of them from OOTI.
Erzulie hoodie and backstage pass in hand, I was ready to perform!
Unfortunately for us, Mia, the lead who played Ti Moune got a cold the day of the performance, so it was tea, sleep, water, and only writing on a whiteboard as a form of communication until the performance that day. Thank goodness she was feeling better by call time!
Minus a missed line or two, it was a really good performance, with very few notes to fix for our last performance. I had forgotten how wonderful it felt to stand on a stage and just know that I knew what I was doing. The stage is my element, and it was so nice to be back on it. It was even better to see a group of new theatre students get to stand on that stage and know for the first time, the rush of adrenaline that hits you when those lights go on. If there’s anything I love more than theatre, it’s teaching others to love it as much as I do.
Like Mulan, the end of this show left an OOTI shaped hole in my heart, that can only be filled by another show, so that’s what I’m looking forward to next.
I’m going to end this blog post with a message I’ve posted several places now, that I wrote for my theatre family that I have gotten here in Lagos:
This night marks the end of a chapter in all of our lives. For some of us, it was ten pages, for some of us ten thousand. OOTI means something different to each of us, but I think I can say that it meant a lot. Some of us have been together from the beginning, others joined in later. Some of us have loved theatre our whole lives, others just discovered it this year. No matter how different we are though, we are an ensemble. A family. We’ve supported each other through shows and in life. We’ve seen each other grow in talent, and confidence, and as people. We’ve struggled through long rehearsal days, and illness, and injuries, and come out better on the other side. We’ve formed friendships that could last forever. And looking back, these two years that I’ve spent with you are some of the most meaningful years of my life. I’ve grown and changed and learned and lived my life to the fullest. And I’m going to miss you. All of you. Each and every one of you means something very special to me, and that won’t ever change. I know very well that when I move I may lose contact with a lot of you, but I want you to know that these memories that we’ve shared won’t ever be forgotten. So as we near the end of this book we share, just know that I love each and every one of you.
Love, your Mulan, your Shelby, and most of all, your Erzulie