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Powerful musical ‘Once on This Island’ comes to Speakeasy Stage

A story of love and loss under the Haitian sun

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Powerful musical ‘Once on This Island’ comes to Speakeasy Stage
Peli Naomi Woods plays Ti Moune in “Once on This Island.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY

This week Speakeasy Stage opens “Once on This Island,” a powerful musical of love, loss and purpose. Running March 11 through April 16, the show follows the journey of Ti Moune, a girl guided by island gods on a fearless journey that changes the course of history.

Peli Naomi Woods, who plays Ti Moune, has been entranced with “Once on This Island” since high school.

Peli Naomi Woods in rehearsal for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. PHOTO: Daniel Callahan, Courtesy of Create & Record.

“It was one of the first shows I had seen where it was a predominantly Black cast and the lead of the show looked like me and got to have a hero’s journey,” says Woods. “I found that to be very unique given the makeup of the theater world.”

“Once on This Island” is ambiguously set in the French Antilles, but director Pascale Florestal has recast the setting specifically to Haiti. The audience is welcomed to the show with a prologue partially in Haitian Creole and Haitian flags are utilized in the performance. The Afro-Caribbean Calypso beat in the score is accented with choreography influenced by traditional Haitian movements. Rooting the story in a specific Caribbean culture illustrates that island experiences are not monolithic but diverse and unique.

The plot of “Once on This Island” does include a love story, but Woods says it’s bigger than just traditional romantic love. When Ti Moune prays to the gods to know her purpose, they debate what path to give her. In an effort to see what quality is more powerful, love or death, they infuse Ti Moune’s path with both. She falls in with a man in a different social position and must choose between her life and his. During the journey, the story examines what love truly means and looks like, as well as how classism and colorism guide the characters’ choices.

“This show really helps people understand that yes, love is a beautiful thing and it’s a beautiful thing to share,” says Woods. “But love also comes with many things, grief, sacrifice, confusion and that’s what we tend to forget.”

Malik Mitchell and cast member of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND in rehearsal. PHOTO: Daniel Callahan, Courtesy of Create & Record.

Love is the most powerful force in this production. It goes far beyond a girl-meets-boy narrative and ultimately changes the segregated social systems of the island. Love is Ti Moune’s superpower and “Once on This Island” legitimizes that strength where many other narratives trivialize love, particularly when wielded by young women.

For Woods, the performance is rooted in familial love as well. She dedicates this performance to her late grandmother who was the first person Woods felt safe enough to sing for. That trust and that love are what fuel this performance.

Woods hopes that this production causes audience members to reflect on the many faces and forces of love, as well as on the historic representation of Caribbean island nations.

“The audience should feel as though it’s safe for them to acknowledge any of these quote ‘negative’ emotions and to accept them as part of what they feel as love,” says Woods. “Loss is okay. Grief is okay.”