‘Once on This Island’ sings up a storm at Constellation

It's a musical production so good, you leave wishing for a soundtrack featuring the cast you just heard.

Constellation Theatre Company’s Once on This Island is the type of production you leave wishing for a soundtrack featuring the cast you just heard. That’s not because the Broadway version isn’t good. It’s just because every so often a cast brings an extra element of heart to their performance. Once in a while, there’s a special something that an ensemble of actors can capture in the live music, leaving you wanting to revel in that rarity as long as you can.

Bianca Lipford as Andrea, Edima Essien as Asaka, Emmanuel Elliot Key as Daniel, Theodore Sapp as Agwe, Sydney Johnson as Erzulie, and Carl L. Williams as Papa Ge in ‘Once on This Island.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

And because the musical clocks in at 90 minutes, Once on This Island doesn’t let you revel for long. The show is a story within a story, and in this production directed by Angelisa Gillyard, the framing narrative centers on a big family in New Orleans. They begin to weave a tale for the youngest among them, Ti Moune, to comfort her during an intense storm. Together they tell of an older Ti Moune, a young peasant woman who falls in love with a rich boy, Daniel, when she finds him barely alive after a car crash.

Kalen Robinson as Ti Moune and Emmanuel Elliot Key as Daniel in ‘Once on This Island.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Ti Moune and Daniel are characters from two separate worlds, their class differences deeply tied to their skin colors: Ti Moune has darker skin, while Daniel, of mixed French and African descent, has lighter skin. The play explores colorism and the intersections of race, class, and gender, alongside poetic questions of love and life, as Ti Moune’s life comes to embody the struggle between Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, and Papa Ge, the God of Death.

The cast of Constellation’s production boldly and enthusiastically tackles each and every one of these themes. While they tell their tale, their vocals and acting are ever precise, attuned, and moving. Kalen Robinson as the older Ti Moune is really charming, embodying the same earnestness as Ariana Caldwell, who plays her younger counterpart. The way Ti Moune is written runs the risk of one-dimensionality, but it is a testament to Robinson’s and Caldwell’s talents that the character’s hopeful demeanor is imbued with conviction and knowledge. Deimoni Brewington and Cayla Hall also do great work as Ti Moune’s parents (Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie), convincing in their selfless love and protective concern.

Carl L. Williams (Papa Ge) stands out as well, with a vocal belt that suits the character just as well as his ability to nail an evil cackle. Most astounding, though, is the performance of Edima Essien as the Earth Goddess, Asaka. It feels impossible to describe just how magnetic Essien is. She is absolutely radiant, brimming with life, and still, somehow, quite realistic and genuine. Her artistic choices and dazzling voice in her big number, “Mama Will Provide,” are reason alone to see the production.

Theodore Sapp as Agwe, Ariana Caldwell as Young Ti Moune (lower), Carl L. Williams as Papa Ge (higher), and Edima Essien as Asaka in ‘Once on This Island.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Besides the powerful vocals and synchronized emotional heart of the cast, Once on This Island uses everything at its disposal to capture the right feeling. Rarely does anything feel frivolous; instead, the show relies on beautiful but purposeful technical elements and choreography (Maurice Johnson) that go the extra mile. In the lighting (Peter Leibold VI), special attention is paid not just to color but to placement and brightness, so that something like love might be reflected in pale pink behind the scrims one moment, but bright fuchsia centerstage in the next. Set design (Jessica Alexandra Cancino) is equally intentional, a deep-set stage with layers of meaning. Farthest downstage there are brick facades and shutters evocative of the French Quarter, then a balcony that feels between the NOLA world and the island story, and finally a gorgeous island backdrop, which uses silhouettes, shadows, and light to evoke trees, water, and animal life.

Edima Essien as Asaka and Kalen Robinson as Ti Moune in ‘Once on This Island.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Everything about the production is built to draw the audience into the world, in a way that feels very akin to the young Ti Moune being pulled into the story. The final number, “Why We Tell the Story,” confirms this, communicating the love, grief, and hope we need to hear as the story is told. Constellation’s cast and crew convey this so well; but even with the musical’s palpable, loving heart, it is hard to overlook that its ending seems in opposition to that loving heart. To me, the ending felt like an unintentional reinforcement of the power structures Once on This Island sets out to confront. This isn’t totally surprising, considering the musical hinges on the experiences of race, colorism, and class in the Caribbean and, though based on a novel by a Trinidad-born author, was written by two white folks from New York and Pennsylvania. So although I still wish I could have taken home the Constellation cast soundtrack, it’s good to be reminded that we can be moved by a production and at the same time think about its source material mindfully.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Once on This Island plays through November 6, 2022, presented by Constellation Theatre Company performing at CulturalDC’s Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC (between 14th and T). Purchase tickets ($20–$55) online. 

First responders, active or retired military personnel, teachers, and students are eligible for
a 50% discount on regularly priced tickets. Visit ConstellationTheatre.org/special-offers for discount codes and more information.

COVID Safety: Masks are mandatory for all patrons inside the theater. N95 and KN95 masks are preferred. Masks will be available at the theater. Constellation Theatre Company’s COVID-19 Safety Plan is here.

Once on This Island
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy
Direction by Angelisa Gillyard

Kalen Robinson (Ti Moune), Theodore Sapp (Agwe), Edima Essien (Asaka), Sydney Johnson (Erzulie), Carl Williams (Papa Ge), Emmanuel Elliot Key (Daniel), Cayla Hall (Mama Euralie), Deimoni Brewington (Tonton Julian), Bianca Lipford (Andrea), Ariana Caldwell (Young Ti Moune), Patrick Casimir (Armand, Dance Captain) UNDERSTUDIES: Jordyn Taylor (Ti Moune / Young Ti Moune), Jordan Essex (Daniel), Jasmine Proctor (Asaka / Mama Euralie), Scean Aaron (Agwe / Armand), Sylvern Groomes Jr. (Papa Ge / Tonton Julian), Nina Sophia Pacheco (Erzulie / Andrea)

Angelisa Gillyard (Director), Maurice Johnson (Choreographer), Refiye Tappen (Music Director & Conductor), Elisa Rosman (​Music Director), Jessica Alexandra Cancino (Scenic Designer), Kendra Rai (Costume Designer), Peter Leibold VI (Lighting Designer), Kevin Lee Alexander (​Sound Designer), Amy Kellett (Properties Designer), Jenny Male (Intimacy and Fight Director), Jordan Stanford (Intimacy and Fight Director), Mike Salmi (​Technical Director), Casey Parker (Production Stage Manager)

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