Audience Context Guide


I’m very concerned about people. I’m concerned about Trinidadians and Haitians and Americans and the things that have happened to us since slavery and what has helped to form us all since slavery, even though some of us believe that it hasn’t mattered in our life and every generation has to find its own truth. Truth is not encompassing one person alone. Your mother’s truth becomes a part of yours, so generational truths have a way of sifting down…The full responsibility of writers I believe should be trying to make the world a better place for us all to live in.

—Rosa Guy, author of My Love, My Love, or, The Peasant Girl

Q&A with Director Alan Muraoka

alanMaegan Clearwood, Dramaturgy Associate: What initially drew you to Once On This Island?

Alan Muraoka, Director: Once On This Island remains one of my favorite shows of all time. I saw the original Broadway cast while I was performing in another Broadway production, and during that period in the late 1980s it was the onslaught of the “spectacle musical,” with turntables and falling chandeliers and helicopters. And Once On This Island was the exact opposite of that. It was a simple set, an ensemble of actors creating with minimal props, and a flawless score and book which vibrates with heart and humor. So when Jason [Loewith] contacted me about possibly directing it, I fought for the job with a fervor.

MC: You look at Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s story through a very unique lens; where did the idea for connecting the musical to natural disaster recovery come from?

AM: I loved the show so much, but I wanted to see if there was a reason to tell the story in 2014. In the original version, there is a hurricane that is ravaging a Haitian village, and the story of begins around a campfire telling a crying child the story to calm her fears. This village is a unified community sharing this story in the oral storytelling tradition. And the idea that a hurricane beginning the show got me thinking about the weather events that have ravaged the South and the Northeast in the last few years: Katrina, Sandy, Irene. We as Americans are now just as vulnerable to these disasters, which led me to the “what if” moment. What if instead of a village in Haiti, that we set the opening of this show in a modern U.S. city which is awaiting a hurricane event, and groups of different classes are forced to find shelter in a Red Cross Evacuation Center? And the story of Once On This Island is a story from everyone’s childhood, like an Aesop’s fable or Dr. Suess tale. So these strangers from different classes a become community by telling this tale to quell the tears of the scared child. It’s a new way to enter the show, and my hope is that it adds emotional tension and texture.

MC: How would you describe your directing style?

AM: Collaborative definitely. Since I was trained as an actor, I feel like I know what other actors need in terms of communication, and when to let them discover for themselves and when to guide with ideas. I always come in with an idea of how I think a scene should be played, but inevitably it changes and morphs into a mixture of their ideas and my ideas. The actors must feel ownership of the material. If I’m trying to force my ideas only on them, the ending result would seem stiff and unnatural.

MC: How has directing Once On This Island challenged you as an artist?

AM: In trying a new concept with an established show, there is always a risk of damaging the core of what makes the show work in the first place. I am trying to be cognizant of not invading or marring the heart of this show, because the heart of this show is huge.

MC: How would you describe this ensemble of performers? What do they bring to the storytelling process that surprised you?

AM: Honestly I cannot imagine doing this show without one of these folks. They all bring life and augment the storytelling and character so much, and I am in their debt. They say that casting is 90 percent of the success of a show, and I could not agree more. I am so lucky. And the spirit in the rehearsal room has been nothing but joyous. We laugh, we cry, we dance. Early on the cast was aware of the respect I have for this piece, and they each have the same reverence for the material, so we became a unified ensemble very quickly. I am grateful. And Darren Lee, the choreographer, and I have a long working relationship, so our trust with each other is big. We aren’t afraid to say what is not working, which helps to find the path to what is right.

MC: Once On This Island tells an enchanting story, but it touches on some very dark themes as well: unrequited love, class divisions, even death and grief. How did you strike a balance between vibrancy and depth, and why is it important that this musical is part of our Family Series? What can families gain from this story?

AM: This question reminds me very much of one of the most powerful episodes of Sesame Street, where I still work as an actor. Back in the early ’80s, Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper on the series, died. Instead of recasting the role, or explaining Mr. Hooper’s absence by saying that he had moved away, the producers of Sesame Street decided to create an episode that taught their young audience about the difficult topic of death. The straightforward honesty created an episode which TV Guide calls “One of the 10 greatest moments in television.” I think that children are smarter and more savvy than we as adults give them credit for, and they are aware when adults try to sugarcoat reality. It is my hope that any child who comes to the show feels the same emotions that the Little Child in our show: fear, joy, humor, sadness, anger, and most importantly, love. That is why it is an important part of the Family Series.

MC: What do you hope your audiences will come away with?

AM: If they smile, laugh, and shed a tear, then I feel like we have succeeded. I know they will walk out humming the tunes, and end up downloading the cast album when they get home.

MC: The musical ends with the storytellers answering “Why we tell the story.” Why should America be telling this story right now?

AM: This is a universal tale about devotion, courage, love and acceptance. These are themes that are always important and relevant.

Divine Haiti: Portraits of the Lwa by Hërsza Barjon

Barjon’s portraits of the Lwa–off of whom the gods from Once On This Island are based–provide brilliant insight into the vibrant world of the Haitian gods. Most available images of the Lwa are highly symbolic; they are usually reconstructions of Christian iconography, the Lwa’s patron saints infused with Haitian religious symbology. Barion’s images are unique in that they are about the gods themselves, not the Christian faith that influenced them. These portraits are just that: portraits, glimpses into the personalities, characteristics, and composition of the original Haitian Lwa.

As Barjon’s website explains:

Vodou in Haiti is a means of resistance and organization; it has been employed to re-suture social identity, cultural integration and moral authority in the face of social and historical forces which tended towards annihilation for the slaves, and, in modern times, the exploitation of the Haitian masses. Clearly, Vodou, in its affirmation of our traditional moral values and its efforts to sustain a high sense of humanism and communality among the people of Haiti, has been a central thread in the very fabric of the Haitian experience.  As such, it is a true measure and expression of national consciousness and of African continuity in the Americas. Vodou, with its powerful pedagogical methods, its strong democratic tradition, its history of revalorization of Haitian traditions and its contribution to the struggle for national identity and racial pride, might well be the link needed to help re-stitch the loose seams of Haitian culture and history.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1958, Hërsza “Hëza” Barjon is unique in her style. Her artwork does not fall into any specific category. She is a self-taught artist who started with patchworks, painting on decorative fabrics and crafts. At age 18, she frequently visited the studios of artist Bernard Séjourné and later those of Jean-Claude Legagneur. Hërsza draws her inspiration from the veiled violence she carries within her deeper self, which prompts her to create a sort of tropical expressionism, a post-modern, and surrealist fauvism, where vibrant colors seduce the observers. Her art is inspired by modern art but keeps in perspective the flavor of the traditional naive and primitive Haitian art and its unfinished shapes. Hërsza celebrates the nature of Haiti like a promise. In her paintings, there is this obsession with the rites born from the tutélaire gods and mythology, as well as the love of the sacred emanating from her deep faith. She currently resides in Miami with her family.

Third Heaven, by Peter Cooley

Peter Cooley selected a handful of other poems to accompany the following for Remembering Katrina, which includes literary responses to the disaster and the writers’ own stories. Cooleny’s Katrina story follows the poem.

Because the spirit, too, knows loneliness
disasters happen in the universe
and someone like myself, smallest of men,
finds grace, a nimbus on the wall at noon.

After the hurricane, I drove back home
from hiding out safely inside a church.
I saw downed oaks squashed across roof on roof
or telephone wires; coming down my street

I saw abandoned dogs joined in a pack
scrounging the garbage cans, I saw my house.
Nothing looked different but some scattered leaves
across the front walk: purple, blue and gold.

I knew I never had seen leaves before.
I picked up one the color of the sky.
I held it while I opened the front door.
But I was blinded. I had second sight.

Inside, no lights, no water but just sun.
Everything just as God imagined it
for me to understand my human need
of the material: nothing, everything

was essential where I was staring now.
Only one thing was clear: someone was in the room,
someone larger than rooms and hurricanes,
someone who shone brighter than any sun.

There was no word fort this except the ones
familiar to us all: deliverance.
What I was standing in I would call light
but it was brighter. I had my third sight.

Five years later, I still have changing sight.

“We stayed, living with no electricity or water and no food except what my wife and I found in the Episcopal Church parish hall or obtained from the Salvation Army. We relied on our few neighbors who stayed behind; we relied on ourselves. We relied on God. I began writing about the storm immediately. I did not really want to write about Katrina but  found I had no choice. I came out of this experience valuing everything more: the sanctity of human life, the need to make art, and the urgent need to share it, especially.”

The word emergency comes from the word emerge, to rise out of, the opposite of merge, which comes from merger, to be within or under a liquid, immersed, submerged. An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosophere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion. Catastrophe comes from the Greek kata, or down, and streiphen, or turning over. It means an upset of what is expected and was originally used to mean a plot twist. To emerge into the unexpected is not always terrible, though those words have evolved to imply ill fortune.

— From A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit.

Images of Destruction

The people who live in the world of Once on This Island are no strangers to the tempestuous moods of their gods; Haiti, the island off of which the musical was based, is not the only community that has been crippled by natural disasters in recent years, however. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy proved the most destructive storms in recent American history, destroying coastal landscapes, leaving death and injury in their wake, and uprooting thousands from their homes. As we explore what living through such experiences is like for the characters of Once on This Island, photographs of the immense destruction such disasters incur will hopefully prove insightful, if jarring and frightening as well.

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Katrina

Haiti: 2010 Earthquake and recent storms


Images of Recovery

The three image galleries on this page showcase photographs from three post-storm communities: the U.S. East Coast (after Hurricane Sandy), New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina), and Haiti (after Hurricane Isaac and the 2010 earthquake). Although many of the images depict survivors living among devastation and rubble, the most common theme among these visual stories is resilience and rebirth:

Hurricane Sandy: The deadliest storm of 2012, Hurricane Sandy was responsible for 117 deaths in the U.S. and 69 more in Canada and the Caribbean. In spite of its overwhelming devestation, the storm was also notable for the enormous community response that it inspired: the Red Cross alone received millions of dollars in donations that it used towards sending out trained workers, purchasing relief supplies, and housing displaced residents.

Hurricane Katrina: After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, more than 1,800 people were killed, and tens of thousands of homes and other buildings along the Gulf were destroyed. Katrina caused one of the largest and most abrupt displacements of people in U.S. history, with an estimated 1.5 million people leaving their homes along the Gulf Coast. Thousands of displaced New Orleans were relocated to Red Cross shelters like the ones pictured below.

Haiti, post-earthquake: In 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, destroying its capital of Port-au-Prince and killing more than 200,000 people. Today, more than 150,000 Haitians remain displaced in “temporary” camps. Despite immense international support following the disaster, the 271 official camps are still not enough to bring the country back to normalcy.