Bre Jackson. Photo: Jonathan Roberts
Once on This Island
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy
Directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Once On This Island is a pretty good show, but this production is closer to great. As with the recent Broadway revival, Robert Fleming exploits the aspect of fable or folk tale at work in the story to interject thoughts of the aftermath of generations of colonialism and the state of island cultures brutalized by nature and Superpowers.
Not that Fleming sacrifices any of the joy and exuberance inherent in the score, which flows like water with only spare moments of dialogue. It is not a memorable score in the classic sense, but the show draws a good deal of its energy and texture from the music.
The story of Ti Moune (Lauren Chanel), adopted by Mama Euralie (Rheaume Crenshaw) and Tonton Julian (Bernard Dotson), is an examination of racial and cultural division on an unidentified island in the Antilles that Fleming clearly connects with Haiti. Thunder rumbles through the Pamela Brown Auditorium as the audience is seated and the actors casually enter one by one and sit on Red Cross cots, connoting the days following a hurricane.
The population of the island is divided into lighter-skinned haves and darker-skinned have-nots, the legacy of white Imperialism. Ti Moune is a peasant girl whose love for Daniel Beauxhomme (Colin D. Carswell), more or less the Prince of the island, drives the narrative.
Fleming’s production is hugely entertaining, with an immensely talented cast almost constantly moving; Fleming is director and choreographer here, and the stage is filled with sinuous, dynamic dance and movement that conjures the cultural aesthetic of the Caribbean cultures. And they can sing like nobody’s business. With an ensemble this tight, it seems criminal to single out actors, especially since the show is built to give them all their moment to shine, but “Mama Will Provide” is a showstopper, and Bre Jackson makes the most of it.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t call out the fine work of three local talents that are included here. The wonderful Christina Booker and Alfie Dale Jones, Jr. are Storytellers (underscoring the oral tradition), and Jones also serves as Movement Associate/Dance Captain, while Leilani Bracey is very assured and exhibits a strong voice as the Young Timone. Cadence Diggs alternates the role, and both are local, but it was Ms. Bracey in the performance I saw. While it is necessary, albeit welcome, that the casting of minors always comes from the community, the presence of Booker and Jones is another hopeful sign that Actors Theatre casting might be opening up more to the deep pool of talent available in Louisville.
Whatever its merits, Once On This Island is a show that could so easily slip into mediocrity unless it is rendered with a bold vision. Fleming identifies the concept of oral history as the key strength of the story, and the Romeo and Juliet aspect of the love story is sturdy and irresistible, but he gives equal measure to the social commentary without dampening the sheer joy of the piece. This is a surprisingly complex and rich folk tale and the deeper subtext is illuminated with great clarity.
Jason Ardizzone-West’s set is virtually another character, filled with detail, texture, and surprises that develop as the show unfolds, and Lex Liang’s costumes are just as interesting, a mix of references to character and history built from fashion and refuse – one regal headpiece is a repurposed front of an electric fan. And the storm effects are viscerally realized through Alan C. Edwards lights and Daniel Perelstein’s sound…and more.
This company has featured many estimable artists at its helm over the course of 50+ years, but it is hard not to feel that Robert Fleming is a fresh wind on several levels. Once On This Island is a declaration of his sensibility as an artist, and how much it might be a broadside communicating how he will shape ATL’s future remains to be seen.
Featuring Gisela Adisa, Christina Booker, Leilani Bracey, Colin D. Carswell, Lauren Chanel, Rheaume Crenshaw, Cadence Diggs, Bernard Dotson, Ken Early, Bre Jackson, Alfie Dale Jones, jr., Soara-Joyce Ross, Allan K. Washington, & Alexis Louise Young
Once On This Island
January 29 – February 23, 2020
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.