Last night, at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, the 2017 Revival Cast for “Once on This Island” sang “Mama Will Provide” while I was sitting on my couch with my own mother. Not 20 minutes later, they won Best Revival of a Musical. Their win was a good day to be Haitian. We haven’t had one of those in awhile.
Tamyra Gray, who me and my mom both voted for on her season of American Idol and now portrays a genderbent Papa Ge, explains the critical cultural importance for shows that honor the diaspora by explaining “when our ancestors were brought here they lost so much of their history…they try to hold on to it as much as they can.”
As a second-generation Haitian woman who comes from a big family, there is no currency more important than culture. It’s something not even money can buy. Seeing a predominantly black cast win any category at the Tony’s is a cause for celebration. But there was something about Once On This Island that had magic behind it, something I almost could not explain but will continue to keep attempting.
Once On This Island originated in the minds of Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty after stopping in a bookstore one day. Ahrens had picked up the 1985 book My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy (a Caribbean retelling of the Little Mermaid) and read the line “There is an island where rivers run deep”. She proceeded to buy the book for $1.50. Ahrens once said that when considering a revival, this was the show where she would not change a thing. When Director Michael Arden came to them, he originally wanted it to be acapella and Ahrens & Flaherty said no immediately.
Arden could have stopped there but there is power in being able to hear the word no a lot. As artists, what we end up forging out of rejection is what spins gold. Ahrens, Flaherty, & Arden take on the tale of Ti Moune and Daniel, a Caribbean Romeo and Juliet story of love, of heartbreak, of spirit, of soul, of song, of the gods, of an island. An island that means so much more to so many of us.
When asked about the setting for the revival in an interview for Broadwaydirect.com, “Same Island, New Territory”, Flaherty stated “The original novel is not placed in any one place. It’s a fictitious island and a fable. And that was the setting of the original production. But in this production, in light of current events, Michael felt passionate about setting it in Haiti” Director Michael Arden confirmed his passion, when he himself was asked about Haiti by Playbill before the start of Once on This Island’s run last year, stated “Haiti is a proud nation, rich in heritage and spirituality. How they have been able to not only survive, but thrive is a testament to how the Haitian people have come together to rebuild, create new families and care for one another.”
According to a New York Times retelling, when the show opens, we are exposed to the truth of storm. Goats and chickens run about the stage. Water floods the doorway. There is debris everywhere. there is no raised stage and orchestra, just sand and a band.
Within that first minute, there is immersion. As if anyone in the Haitian diaspora could forget the 2010 Earthquake or what Hurricane Matthew just did. Michael Arden traveled to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, for casting calls, looked at pictures and sights of places in Haiti still ravaged by nature’s cruelest hand for set design, craving authenticity and unknowingly satisfying the appetite of those starving for home.
The show proves that Haiti knows ugly. It knows pain, struggle, poverty, and heartbreak. But it also knows beauty, strength, and love.
At the center, there is a little girl, terrified yet amazed.
For a few seconds, you feel like you know her.
To calm her fears of the impending storm, the villagers begin to tell her the story of Ti Moune, the protagonist, is also a common old Creole childhood nickname that translates to roughly mean, “little old soul”. Once on This Island, by using this choral structure supports native voices and avenues of based on the traditions of Haitian storytelling as the framework of the performance. It evokes a time back when the gran moun would go to the village and tell short stories to the children as lessons. In her book, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work”, prolific Caribbean author Edwidge Danticat explains the “krik,krak” mode of storytelling that was popular in Haiti. When the gran moun in the village would finish their story, they would ask “krik?” and the audience would respond “krak”. I’d try to do my best to convey this is a series of mixed media as an issue and make it all flow as one narrative, rooted in unity. And Ti Moune’s story is the unifying hero’s journey, evident when the young girl from the beginning ends the show by retelling Ti Moune’s story back to her island.
Uncertainty is a theme that has been coloring itself in for Haitians lately, especially issues surrounding immigration. TPS, or Temporary Protected Status, is an immigration program that allowed Haitian Americans to live and work in the United States due to political strife and turmoil in Haiti. When this administration made cuts to DACA, unknowingly to some, TPS was also on the chopping block. About 50,00 Haitians are still waiting to know if they are set to be deported from this country. It is a nightmare.
When asked about Haiti shortly after the TPS removal decision, this current administration spat in its face verbally.
When the Tony’s were asked about Haiti, they had the nerve to call it beautiful in the face of a man who damns us completely. When he said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”, they put us back in.
History has shown us that these kinds of acts are nothing short of revolutionary. Every minute of that show and every detail gives the Haitian diaspora something to cling onto.
My mom asks me how I could feel all of this for a show I haven’t seen on Broadway itself yet. I laugh and say Youtube. It is how all of this love for a country I have no memory of keeps breathing. I just pray that it is enough.
In a way, that could somehow answer the age old question of ti gran moun: how could we know? How could we have already know?
I tell her, trust is a muscle. Home relaxes it.
My country is suffering. My country is dying, slowly melting away. My country…is one of uncertainty. But the thing is…when I say my country to Haitians, they think I mean the United States. And when I say my country to Americans, they think I mean Haiti. My country… as an immigrant and an artist…was the floating homeland, the ideological one, all of the Haitians living outside Haiti, the dyaspora.. Exiles. Refugees. Migrants. Nomads. Naturalized citizens. Half generation. Second generation. Haitian-Americans. Immigrants. People with their feet planted in both worlds. And there are a million of us.”