Editor’s Note: A Daily staffer contributed to this production, but they were not involved in the creation, production or publication of this piece.
This past weekend, The University of Michigan’s “Michigan Union Shows, Ko-Eds, Too” (MUSKET) produced “Once on This Island,” a stunning one-act musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Performed in the Power Center, “Once on This Island” is based on a book by Rosa Guy entitled, “My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl.” In it, an orphaned peasant girl, Ti Moune (played by the radiant Simone Clotile, a Music, Theatre & Dance junior) lives on an island in the French Antilles and falls in love with a “grande homme” (or “beautiful man”), a wealthy, lighter-skinned man named Daniel Beauxhomme played by the brilliant Myles Mathews, a Music, Theatre & Dance freshman. Though her love for Daniel is so strong, Ti Moune will never be able to marry him because of where she is from. Directed and choreographed by Music, Theatre & Dance juniors Chloe Cuff and Brooke Taylor, and Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Cristina Benn, MUSKET’s “Once on This Island” uses community and love to combat colorism and classism.
While audiences were filing into the vast Power Center, the cast was already on stage, playing with soccer balls, dancing to drums and socializing with each other. This pre-show created an opportunity for the audience to see a glimpse of life in the French Antilles and established a powerful sense of community that was carried throughout the rest of the show. Not only did the pre-show immediately bring the audience into the story, but the set, designed by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Laurence Vance, was incredibly intimate, made of vibrant vines, flowers and string lights that one would see in a backyard. Additionally, the creative team chose to set the band on stage as well, furthering the strong sense of togetherness. The visual of the community on stage in such an intimate and familiar setting made the Power Center feel three times smaller and made it practically impossible not to become completely immersed in Ti Moune’s story.
Music, an important part of the culture on the island, was something that bonded the community. It connected the peasants to each other as well as to the gods. For instance, in Ti Moune’s first solo, “Waiting For Life to Begin,” she sings “Oh gods, oh gods hear my prayer,” asking them to show her her purpose. In fact, the very first musical number of the show starts with the lyrics, “Asaka, grow me a garden, please Agwe don’t flood my garden, Erzulie, who will my love be, Papa Ge, don’t come around me,” signaling that the people use music as a way of communicating with the gods, which are at the core of their community. The music would not have been so central to the story without the thoughtful work of the Music Director Dominic Dorset, a Music, Theatre & Dance senior.
Similarly, dance is used throughout the show to signal community. Taylor’s choreography had heavy African influences, a nod to the characters’ ancestors and culture. This was highlighted in one of the most beautiful moments of the show, in which Ti Moune is asked to dance at the ball. She looks down at her feet, removes her city shoes and begins to dance the way she would at home. Eventually, two peasant servants join Ti Moune in her dance, immediately familiar with its steps and rhythm, showcasing their communal ties and unity surrounding dance. This moment was incredibly unique to MUSKET’s production.
Not only does dance ground the community, but so does their connection to the earth. Through a gorgeous and thoughtful set, costume design and direction, the creative team displayed the intersection of the earth and spirituality. Each god had an eye makeup design symbolizing what they represented. For instance, Agwe, god of water, played beautifully by Rackham student Algernon Robinson, wore blue highlights around his eyes, while the other gods wore their respective colors. Cuff brilliantly chose to have ensemble members play birds, trees and frogs, illustrating their close connection and appreciation for the earth. This was complemented by the beautiful lighting design by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Abi Farnsworth. What was the most striking, however, was that at the end of the story, when Ti Moune sacrifices her life for Daniel because of her love for him, she becomes a tree that watches over Daniel and is welcomed back into the earth by the gods.
MUSKET’s “Once on This Island” teaches audiences that love prevails. In the face of hate and discrimination, love and community are what allow us to thrive.
Daily Arts Contributor Constance Meade can be reached at email@example.com.