BY SANDY STAGGS
The Peace Center will be transformed into a tropical paradise this week with audience members traipsing and frolicking on the sandy beach stage for a fairy tale retelling with some powerful statements about class relations.
The catch is the French Antilles locale in Once on This Island has seen better days. This ambitious production (Tony Winner for Best Revival) directed by Michael Arden (Spring Awakening revival), is set in a post-hurricane Caribbean wasteland. What was ingenious in 2017, seems prescient in 2019 after the string of devastating island calamities since the show mounted, including The Bahamas and Puerto Rico.
“It’s very topical,” concurs Cassondra James, who plays Erzulie, the Goddess of Love on the national tour, and who was a Broadway replacement for Erzulie, as well as an original storyteller and flute player in the Tony-winning production.
“When we did the show on Broadway we couldn’t believe how many areas around the world were ravaged by hurricanes.” James said, adding that the show really hit home with a friend from St. George who told her the musical and its setting “brought back” all of the memories and emotions of that tragedy.
Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy – itself an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid – this 1990 show was re-conceived in 2017 at Circle in the Square Theatre and the touring version tries to “incorporate some of those in-the-round elements” and capture that immersive experience with on-stage seating among the action and the actors, and real sand on the stage, which poses its own challenges of performing but is “great exercise”, according to James.
With a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the Tony Award-winning songwriters of Anastasia, Ragtime and Seussical, Once on This Island features a diverse cast of actors of color and is the sweeping tale of Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter), “a peasant girl who uses the power of love to bring together people of different social classes,” says James, also a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center (CUNY) where she is completing work on standup comedy.
“I was not familiar with the show,” she recalls of first auditioning.”But I immediate fell in love with it.”
“Its been wonderful. I particularity love to tour and experience the local culture of the cities we visit like Nashville and Kentucky whee e the audiences were great.”
This production also features Tamra Gray as the antagonist Papa Ge, the Demon of Death who makes a wager with James’ Erzulie, and Kyle Freeman as Asaka (Mother of the Earth) who actually cooks peppers on stage at the top of the show.
James like to think of her character as “fircelt protective.”
“She has a bit of hubris. She believe she is going to win he bet, but the Goddess of Love also learns a lesson,’ she says.
“This young girl proves that love is stronger than death. The community is brought together. rifts are mended, and relationships more loving and equitable…Love can conquer death.”
“Once on This Island” is, James said, “layered with hidden gems. There are so many stories that are hidden there about colonization and recovering from a hurricane.”
And she would reveal one secret in the show: the downed telephone pole on the stage. “It’s a huge part of the show. Pay attention people. They should watch how characters are treating that pole.”
The pole, among other purposes also serves as a community bulletin board. The photos on the pole are actually pictures that cast members contributed to honor loved ones that have passed, James said.
For more info about Cassondra James and her music that’s available on all streaming services, and a new EP to be released in 2020, and to hear James sing a beautiful song that was cut from the original 1990 production “Come Down from the Tree,” visit her website www.CassondraJames.com.
Greenville’s own Tony/Grammy nominee PHILLIP BOYKIN who plays TonTon Julian will receive a special induction into the South Carolina Theatre Hall of Fame from the South Carolina Theatre Association at the Peace Center after the opening night performance.