Through a colorful and magical production, Shea’s Performing Arts Center produces its first in-house show of “Once on this Island” in which the talent of Buffalo, NY is highlighted and celebrated. I had the pleasure of attending the opening night at Shea’s 710 Theatre and could feel the excitement and support of the audience as soon as I entered the doors of the theatre. Actors could be seen walking around interacting with the audience and introducing themselves further building the buzz.
“Once on this Island” tells the story of Ti Moune (Zhanna Reed) as she is saved from a flood as a child and sent on a journey as a young woman to prove that love is stronger than death. The Gods are an integral part of this tale and are made up of Asaka, Goddess of the Earth (Latosha Jennings), Agwe, God of water (Marcus J. Paige), Erzulie, Goddess of love (Anita Frasier), and Papa Ge, God of death (Darrick Penny). Ti Moune falls in love with a wealthy grand homme named Daniel after she saves him from a car crash. She makes a deal with Pap Ge to keep him alive, trading her soul for his. After he is returned to the other side of the island, Ti Moune goes to him in hopes of marrying her true love.
“Once on this Island” highlights two different worlds of the peasants and grand hommes. The peasants have darker skin and spend their days laboring on one side of the island while the lighter-skinned grand hommes entertain guests and have lavish parties on the other side of the island. The underlying themes of racism and class continue to make statements on society as a whole that audiences are able to connect with. Even in 2022, people are currently arguing over the casting of a black woman as Ariel in Disney’s upcoming “The Little Mermaid” live-action movie. Racism is unfortunately still very much alive and impacting our lives which is why the messages of this production are even more powerful. Having a full cast of brilliantly talented people of color is also a strong representation of the people of Buffalo.
Zhanna Reed does a beautiful job portraying the challenging role of Ti Moune. She fully personifies the strength and hope of the character and performs an incredible dance solo in “Ti Moune’s Dance”. She also brings the necessary sweetness and innocence to the role. Darrick Penny’s portrayal of Papa Ge reminded me of Dr. Facilier from “The Princess and the Frog” as he creates a perfect caricature of Death that also includes accessories similar to the Disney villain. Latosha Jennings as Asaka brings dynamite vocals to the crowd favorite “Mama Will Provide”.
Another stand-out is Melinda Capeles as Andrea and ensemble. Capeles is an accomplished hard of hearing performer and teaching artist who brings the beauty of American Sign Language to her performance. The only other time I had seen sign language incorporated on stage was through performances of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Capeles signs with a musical essence, almost creating choreography with her words. What an amazing representation.
At the end of the show, the cast invited their artistic team on stage with them to perform a final verse of “Why We Tell the Story” and then took the time to speak on the team’s accomplishments and acknowledge their hard work in creating the production. You can really tell how much the cast appreciates and respects them and how close the relationship between them was. The entire audience was on their feet in support of the entire cast, crew, and production team in what felt like a celebration of Buffalo, young talent, theatre, and representation. “Once on this Island” is a must-see and will leave you feeling absolutely inspired.
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no Intermission
Sep 15- Oct 2, 2022
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