Once on this Island and My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl in conversation

Final bows at Once Upon This Island
The first time that I heard about Once on this Island was last year in a class about the Caribbean diaspora in New York City. One of my classmates gave a presentation on the musical and I told myself that I had to see it. When the Scholars program asked me which intellectual experience I would like to attend during this semester I said that, without a doubt, I wanted to go to see Once on this Island. On October 15th, with all of the scholars, old and new, I finally saw the musical and it was an experience that rests with me even to today. The week after, we came together again in order to discuss the musical in conversation with the book that inspired it - My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl, the work of Rose Guy, written in 1985.

In the adaptation of the book, a peasant girl named Ti Moune falls in love with a rich man living in the other side of the Island after a storm devastates her village in the Antilles. Even though their communities and their cultures separate them, Ti Moune goes to get help from the gods of the Island in order to get back to the object of her affection. This musical is directed by Micheal Arden, who was also behind the return of Spring Awakening to Broadway. The staging, the beautiful moments of emotion, the engaging music, the intimate and immersive space, and the all black cast all create a world of beauty and wonder. The expression of emotions in the songs, the great skill of the actors, the attention to detail, and the beautiful connections established with the Antilles created an experience in which I could both lose and find myself. While taking the train back to Barnard after the show, we spoke of the amazement that filled us. It was an unforgettable experience.

In order to complete and contextualize the conversation, we decided to read My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl, the inspiration for Once on this Island, and a tropical interpretation of The Little Mermaid. The book is a tragic love story of Désirée Dieu-Donné (Ti Moune in the musical), who devotes herself to a rich gentleman, Daniel Beauxhomme, that she saved after a huge storm. But when the high-society family of Daniel thinks that Désirée’s skin is too dark and her family i too poor for a boy destined for fortune, Désirée proves that she will give everything, even her life, for love. The book deals with themes of classism, colorism, colonialism and its effects, reparation, and Haitian vaudou gods. It is a story that retains the traditional structure of fairytales while transforming the content so that the story has more depth by examining the subjects of culture and society that no-one addresses. The book does something that I don’t see very often - it represents Haitian culture, in all of its glory, with attention to both the good and the bad without pitying or fetishizing the culture.

After seeing the two works, we noticed many differences between the book and the musical. We discussed all of the differences and our connections with the two works. The greatest difference that we noticed was that, in the book, Rosa Guy does not shy away from hard subjects, where as the musical chooses to concentrate on positive subjects, for the most part. The expression of this dichotomy is visible in the different endings of the book and the musical. (Spoilers!) In the book, the story concludes with Désirée trampled by a large crowd while chasing the car of Daniel and his new wife as it leaves the gates of the mansion en route to their honeymoon. After her death, she is thrown on the side of the road and a large storm follows. It is a tragic end which seems to leave the story without resolution. But with more introspection, we realized that it isn’t a lack of resolution but a commentary on how black women constantly serve as casualties for the Greater Good and the progression of society. Furthermore, with this ending, Guy shows that there are specific structures of oppression that can not be dismantled by love or by a singular person, but which must be directly addressed by all of society in order to be repaired. This ending shows the spirit and the goal of the book. It is not only a fairytale, it is a social commentary.

On the other hand, the ending of the musical is more happy and inspiring than its source of inspiration. At the end, Ti Moune dies because of famine and exhaustion while waiting for Daniel to take her back. After her death, she becomes a tree under which the son of Daniel falls in love with a peasant girl years later. The transformation of her soul into a tree is celebrated as an honor and a spectacle, not as a sad and uninspiring end. I can see in the musical some elements retained from the book - such as the attention to colorism in the song “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes” where the performers sing of the hate of the Beauxhommes for the blackness of the peasants because it reminds them where they came from, and with the references to Haitian culture through the utilization of vaudou gods. But still, the differences appear in the musical, for the most part, with the inspiring tone of the work. Particularly with the prioritization of the notion of forgiveness and of the love story, the musical is more optimistic and, on many levels, more accessible. By shifting the attention from hard problems to more palatable subjects for all audiences, the resolution is more full of hope. With the end of the musical, the story of Ti Moune and the possibility of restitution becomes more like a dream than reality because it concentrates on the ideal of post-colonial harmony rather than on the methods to attain that ideal.

I think that the two works are beautiful and necessary, in their own ways. As a social commentary, My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl is a timeless book. In the world of theater, Once on this Island is something that has never been seen before. With this production a door is opened so that we can speak about hard subjects such as the ones described in the book. Once on this Island gives life to My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl and gives this life to hundreds of audiences in a theater. With the discussion, by placing the two works in conversation, we were able to see and discuss more than if we had viewed each separately. Above all, for me, the most beautiful thing was that we had the possibility to see Haiti and its culture - my culture - in my two favorite mediums, in print and on the stage - a rare but gratifying opportunity.

Jazmin Maco '21