Once on This Island


The Georgian College Theatre of Barrie, Ontario, is premiering its production of Once on This Island, the musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty that took the New York theater world by storm in the 1990-1991 season. Set in Haiti, the show became the great hit of the 1990-1991 theater season in New York and went on to successful and award-winning productions in London and elsewhere. It has become a favorite of high school college theater groups.

I include this announcement here, not because I expect that any reader chancing upon this post will immediate head for Ontario to catch the performances on May 16-17, but because it gives me an opportunity to write about the incomparable Rosa Guy, the Trinidad-born writer whose novel My Love, My Love or the Peasant Girl was adapted into the musical.  

Guy, born in Trinidad in 1925, grew up in New York City’s Harlem, the setting of many of her books for young adults. Beginning with The Friends (1973)—the first of a trilogy that includes Ruby (1976) and Edith Jackson (1976)—Guy’s work offers richly complex examinations of young black men and women coming of age against the powerful forces of racism and cultural and class polarities of American society. Ruby drew controversy because of its focus on a love affair between two young women, although the novel centers on the protagonists’ problematic family relationships and differing cultural backgrounds and the adolescent homosexuality if portrayed as a natural step towards maturity.

Between 1979 and 1987, Guy worked on a detective series featuring a streetwise Harlem teenager, Imanu Jones: The Disappearance (1979) functions as a symbolic study of the impact of poverty and prejudice on youth in the American ghettos; New Guys Around the Block (1982) and And I Heard a Bird Sing (1987) explore the theme of “guilt by race” and offer commentary in victims, victimizers, and social responsibility. My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl (1985), Guy’s allegorical retelling of Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” meshes the many strands of her West Indian heritage—oral tradition, calypso, Voudou, Catholicism, and the luxuriant, sometimes violent, natural environment.

Guy has also written three novels for adults: the autobiographical Birds at My Window (1966), written after the deaths of her husband and her friend Malcolm X; A Measure of Time (1983), an evocative chronicle of the disappearance of the “village within” quality of Harlem; and The Sun, the Sea, a Touch of the Wind (1995), in which an American artist living in Haiti examines her troubled past.


Once on This Island is a calypso-flavored re-telling of the traditional Little Mermaid story, focusing on the effects social class and race have on love. “It’s a really great story that deals with a lot of racism issues,” said Carla Tucker, the show’s Ontario choreographer. Once on This Island revolves around Ti Moune, a poor black peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel, an upper-class light-skinned boy, whose life she saves after a car crash. African lwa or spirits control the peasants’ lives. In the Barrie production, Stephen Amon plays Papa Ge, the god of death. “He is a sly, performer like god, who loves creating chaos and pain,” Amon said. “He’s pretty sinister.”

The musical is also being revived this summer in the UK at Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse, and finally Hackney Empire in London, starting June 5-20, 2009.


The photo above, from the Alfred University production of the play, shows, clockwise from left, the African lwa or spirits who play a central role in the play–Asaka, Mother of the Earth, Erzulie, goddess of love, Agwé, god of Water, and Papa Ge, Demon of Death.

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