Stories can be passed around a campfire, be told across generations and unite communities, said Irvin Mason Jr. It was this notion that led him to direct the musical “Once on This Island.”
Based on a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy, the story takes place in the Caribbean Islands and follows Ti Moune, a girl who falls in love with a Frenchman of higher social standing. The show, presented by Color Box Production Company, is the first title of the spring season and will premier Saturday in the Northwest Campus Auditorium. Although the narrative does prominently feature a love story, Mason, a third-year theater student, said a prominent focus is the Caribbean traditions on the island and the way in which they bring the community together.
“What really drew me to this show was the idea that it takes a village to raise a child,” Mason said. “We see how the island community is so interconnected and how pivotal the notion of gods and deities are to the livelihood of the people.”
Born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mason said the story’s French Antilles setting has a personal connection for him. As he first read the script, his hometown of St. Thomas was hit by hurricanes Maria and Irma. Coincidentally, the musical also opens with the community being ravaged by a hurricane, with its characters banding together in the aftermath. Although the islanders have lost a great deal, Mason said their ability to still see beauty in their world is what drives the play. Through dancing, singing and storytelling, the characters connect with their Caribbean roots and come together to restore their island, he said.
Finding oneself through art and dance is an integral aspect of the production, said third-year theater student and the musical’s choreographer Sabrina Calderon. The narrative initially opens with a child crying because of the tumultuous storm. Village members come to her aid by telling her the story of Ti Moune, speaking of the heroine’s power to unite the island. Throughout the story, Calderon said the various characters, including gods and storytellers, form a kinship with Ti Moune, and learn from her opposition to classism. Calderon said the musical illustrates humanity’s need to connect.
“Art is a medicine and a universal language within itself,” Calderon said. “This show is all about community. … It is a testament that we need people to survive and that without your community you’re nothing.”
The musical celebrates communal ties, but also touches on issues of class and prejudice, emphasizing that society must dismantle such barriers to achieve peace, said Will Nazareno, a fourth-year music performance student and the show’s musical director. The island Ti Moune lives on – the Jewel of the Antilles – is segregated between the peasants and the lighter skinned descendants of French planters and their slaves. Growing up as an immigrant from the Philippines, Nazareno said he experienced colorism in his own community and is glad the topic will be addressed on stage.
“Within the play, there are aspects of social classes, colorism and the idea that there’s this predetermined notion of darker skinned people,” Nazareno said.
Mason said he hopes to create a more accepting environment for students at UCLA by presenting narratives with underrepresented communities, like those in “Once on This Island.” Though it can be hard to learn more about other cultures, the story highlights the value of knowing your neighbor, he said.
“It’s so important for students to come see this show and to leave asking themselves, … ‘How can I be more well-rounded and understanding of the different communities that are here on campus?’” Mason said. “Because UCLA is all of our village and this village is raising us to be who we are.”