ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Alexis M. Skinner
The World of the play
On an unnamed island in the French Caribbean a young peasant girl, Ti Moune, grows up yearning for purpose and adventure. A storm arrives and brings an injured stranger, Daniel Beauxhomme, from the other side of the island. The people of the island are divided by color and class. Daniel’s lighter-skinned family traces its heritage and power to the former French colonizers. Though they are at the mercy of the elements and pray to the gods for survival, the darker-skinned peasants of Ti Moune’s humble fishing village live to tell the folklore of the island. The two young lovers are challenged by their opposing cultures and the gods who rule their island. Based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl, Once on This Island is a tale reminiscent of “The Little Mermaid” or Romeo and Juliet, but soaked in a rich Caribbean flavor.
Ti Moune – A peasant girl who miraculously survived a devastating storm and knows her life is destined for something special
Mama Euralie – An old peasant woman, adoptive mother of Ti Moune
Ton Ton Julian – An old peasant man, adoptive father of Ti Moune
Daniel – A wealthy young man who is healed by Ti Moune
Armand – Daniel’s father
Andrea – Daniel’s betrothed
Agwe – God of Water, unpredictable and uncontrollable like the sea
Erzulie – Goddess of Love, binds all people together
Asaka – Mother of the Earth, rules the bounty of the island
Papa Ge – Gatekeeper of the cemetery and overseer of the unknown
HISTORICAL TERMS & THEMES
Grand Hommes – A French term meaning “great men.” The term is used in the play to describe the free people of color, gens des coleurs, who have the most economic power and make up the governing class of the island. The song “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes” recounts the history of Daniel Beauxhomme’s family, which came about due to a practice of plaçage, a common practice of informal relationships between white Frenchmen and black women. Their offspring were usually born free, had the benefit of their white father’s finances, and lived separate from the formerly enslaved blacks.
Great War – The slaves led a revolt on the island of St. Dominque, now Haiti, fighting for their independence from slavery against France in 1791. Led by Toussaint L’Overture, white French landowners were compelled to leave the island and slavery was abolished in 1801 many years after the initial actions of the Haitian Revolution.
The Gods – The gods of Once on This Island are culled from the deities, known as lwa, from the Haitian Voudou religion. Asaka is a nod to the agrarian lwa, Azaka Medeh who is usually depicted as a country bumpkin who is kind to children. Erzulie is drawn from Erzulie Freda, the patron of lovers and beauty. Papa Ge is representative of Baron Samedi, the most famous in a family of lwa, called the Guédé. The Guédé’s domain is the cemetery and they rule the cycle of death and fertility. Associated with fish, sea plants, and boats, Agwé is a lwa partial to fishermen.
Dance – In Once on This Island both African and European dance are featured. The African-based drumming and dancing featured in “Pray” is the peasants mode of dance. It includes ritual movements that help them stay connected to their gods. European dance, like the waltz during “The Ball” is the grand hommes way to show off their French heritage and Culture. In “Some Girls” Daniel sings of modern dance lessons as a mark of the wealthy girls he knows.
My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy (Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1985)
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1985)
Legacy of the Spirits (1985) by Karen Kramer
Soul of the Islands (1988) by Alain d’Aix
Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1987) by Jonathan Demme