How ‘Once on This Island’ Redefines Gender and Race With Broadway Revival (Exclusive)

Once on This Island
Joan Marcus

The revival starring Lea Salonga, Alex Newell and Merle Dandridge brings new life to the 1990 musical.

The studio at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, where a group of reporters are gathered for a preview of the Broadway revival of Once on This Island, is filled with the vibrant voice of Mother of the Earth. Hitting powerful high notes with modern flamboyance and dramatic flair, the performer never misses a beat, just like Kecia Lewis in the 1990 Tony-nominated original production. Except this time around, Mother is played by a man -- and what many of us in the room knew about the musical has been completely, yet delightfully altered.

Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, Once on This Island is the tale of Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), a fearless peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy boy from the other side of their Caribbean island in the Antilles. When their divided cultures keep them apart, Ti Moune is guided by the powerful island gods, Erzulie (Lea Salonga), Asaka (Alex Newell), Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge) and Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), on a remarkable quest to reunite with the man who has captured her heart. This production transforms the reality of a tropical village devastated by a storm -- an image all-too-similar to this summer’s coverage of hurricanes -- into a fantastical world alive with hope.

In a revival -- the first since the original production closed in 1991, opening Dec. 3 -- directed by Michael Arden, the musical’s original all-black cast now embraces an even more inclusive tone reflective of fluid genders and ethnic identities (including the addition of Asian actors) to embody an increasingly diverse theater audience. “It’s not some grand statement, to be honest,” Arden tells ET. “These four actors appeared and were truly god-like in their talent, and I wanted, in a way, to be a bit blind. Who am I to say who a god is or what a god looks like? And I also thought it was important that kids be able to come to a show and see themselves reflected back.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Salonga -- a veteran of the stage and Tony winner for her portrayal of Kim in Miss Saigon -- who didn’t hesitate to step into the Goddess of Love role originated by Andrea Frierson. Her character, Erzulie, has traded in traditional island garb for white uniform akin to a nurse or aid relief worker, which Salonga describes as “paying tribute to every Filipino nurse that has been cast off into the world.” (Her character’s outfit later transforms into a regal white gown, appropriate to the goddess’ stature.) The actress loves the new direction and feels like “it’s not out of the realm of possibility that there is this little Asian girl on this island. And because of what she does and because of the nurture and nature of her, it’s like the islanders cast her: You’re going to play this part; you're going to be the Goddess of Love for the story we are telling today.”

Known for playing transgender student Unique on Glee, Newell is once again playing with gender norms in his Broadway debut as Asaka. “She is fierce. She has a giant ball gown, darling, with a giant headdress to heaven, and you just have to see it,” he gushes about the role. Although he’s portraying a goddess (while Dandridge takes over the Demon of Death role originated by Eric Riley), Newell cautions audiences not to get too “wrapped up” in the word “mother” or preconceived gender labels. “It’s not about what you are, it’s about the energy that you can give off, that you can create, the love that you have, the nurturing that you have, the mom-hood that you can give.” (Breathing new vibrancy into the character, he not only brought down the house at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, he has since brought audiences to their feet during preview performances at the Circle in the Square Theatre.)

Even with these bold changes, the musical is still very much centered around blackness, which continues to struggle for prominence on the Broadway stage despite recent productions of August Wilson's Jitney, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. For both Darrington and Dandridge, black storytelling remains an important reason why they continue to perform on stage.

For Darrington, it’s gratitude for the “black brothers and sisters who suffered and went without recognition or support for many, many a year to pave the way for us to be here today,” to whom he says he owes his career. The actor, who made his Broadway debut in Ragtime, is honored to “take the space with respect not only for them but also for the people coming after me. It is an honorable legacy to hold on to the past, to provide some great hope and some great tutelage for the future and those who come after me.”

“There is nothing like seeing yourself reflected [on stage],” adds Dandridge, who also stars as Pastor Grace on OWN’s Greenleaf. While making the point that the actors on stage are “here not because of stunt casting, but because everyone up here is excellent,” she also commends the show for concentrating on the human experience. “We are releasing ideas on what the gender should be [and] what the race should be.”

Dandridge also believes that love remains the overarching message for the show, and how love during times of disaster -- particularly with what’s happened in Puerto Rico -- means we must “must care for our fellow man, and in the midst of that, what we get to do is come together.” The recent devastation brought on by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria has only made the show feel timelier. “Disasters are happening at an alarmingly increasing rate,” Arden adds. “I hope people are inspired by how people rebuild -- not only by rebuilding buildings and restoring power, but how we tell, and how we give and share love with each other, because that is rebuilding.”