Incline’s “Once On This Island” Celebrates the Power of Storytelling and Myth

Review by Doug Iden of Once On This Island: Incline Theatre

Care to take a trip to a Caribbean island complete with colorful natives, calypso music and enthusiastic storytellers?  If so, you can forget your plane ticket and merely sashay down to the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater for their latest production, Once On This Island. Based upon a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy, the play tells the redemptive story of a young, native woman whose love for a mixed-race man eventually helps to unite people of differing economic and social classes on a fictitious island in the French Antilles.

Part fantasy, part reality, the play opens with a tremendous storm which causes intensive flooding and the destruction of several villages. A young girl (Little Ti played by Kiree Harris) is stranded in a tree but is rescued and adopted by Mama Euralie (El More) and her husband Tonton Julian (Tim Judah).  They can not afford to raise the young girl but she is so adorable that they make the sacrifice.

The storytellers (the entire chorus) try to soothe the girl and tell her the story of the island in the song “œPrologue/We Dance“.  The song relates the division between the black natives and the lighter-skinned French immigrants who live in mansions and plantations on the other side of the island.

Years later, the young woman (now called Ti Moune played by Shonda Moore) calls upon the gods to let her know their bidding.  The gods, including Asaka, Mother Earth (Tia Seay), Agwe, God of Water (R. Deandre Smith), Erzulie, God of Love (Brittany Hayes) and Papa Ge, Demon of Earth (Chandler Hoffert) belittle her in the song “œWaiting for Life“.  Ti Moune is intrigued by the fast-moving cars driven by the elitist “œgrands hommes“ but is horrified by an accident in which one of the drivers Daniel Beauxhomme (Jared Roper) is severely injured.  Despite fears from her village, Ti Moune nurses Daniel back to health using native medicines.  During her ministrations, Ti Moune falls for Daniel, who we later discover is already engaged to a woman of his own class, Andrea (Loren Richardson).

Ti Moune travels to the other side of the island with the help of the gods to find her love, and is confronted with the realities of the tension and prejudices between the two sides. Her enduring love leads to a tragic sacrifice but ultimately helps to reconcile the biases shown by both classes on the island.

This is an enchanting presentation of a seldom shown play.  It was, however, revived on Broadway in 2017.  The show is virtually an opera.  There is some dialogue, mostly spoken by the storytellers, but there are 23 songs in the production and, no, you won“™t know any of them.  The music, a combination of calypso and other Caribbean motifs, is written by CCM grad Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.  The duo later collaborated on Seussical and Ragtime.  All of the performers in the all-black cast have excellent voices led by Music Director Damon Stevens.  There is a lot of dancing and movement on stage as the ensemble flows between storytellers, villagers, gods and specific characters in the play.  The timing in this constantly moving show is crucial and well directed and choreographed by Jay Goodlett.

The set designed by Brett Bowling is intriguing with a distinctly shabby island appearance.  An enormous tree dominates one side of the stage with a variety of fabrics dangling from the ceiling while a dilapidated shack appears on the opposite side.  Various props including a car, a gate, risers and staves help propel the story.  There are several video projections showing the storm and Denny Reed has used lighting to good effect.

As villagers, the costumes designed by Caron Brady are colorful but simple and traditional but the gods are bedecked representing their various realms.  The God of Water looks like Neptune and the Demon has a skeleton mask reminding us of death.  Both Ti Moune and Little Ti Moune wear distinctive red dresses throughout which contrasts well with the other costumes.

This show is a fable depicting a culture we seldom see.  It takes a while to get into the show and follow the plot and it does require your close attention.  But, if you stay with it, the play is engaging and, ultimately, very satisfying. The redemptive quality in the end turns the tragedy into joy.

So, grab your Mai Tai and snorkels and wend your way to an island you probably have not visited before.  The next production at the Incline is the comedy, The Mystery of Irma Vep, running from July 11 through August 5

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