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‘Once on This Island’ discusses issues of race and class in communities of color

SALT LAKE CITY — As the nation observes Black History Month in February, Utah’s arts community will have its first opportunity to experience an award-winning performance of musical theater that delves into the complicated social issues of race, class and affairs of the heart.

Once on This Island” opened for the first time in the Beehive State Thursday as it was originally produced when it made its stage debut in 1990 in New York City. A later production won the Tony Award for best revival of a musical in 2018.

Due to perceived demographic challenges, the Broadway revival tour which won the Tony chose to skip Utah because the producers believed the state lacked the appetite for a cast comprised completely with people of color in a performance with a racial message. But a local arts expert said getting productions to schedule visits to the Salt Lake City area is often more financially motivated than demographically motivated.

“For every Broadway producer, it’s about population and potential profitability. Salt Lake City’s African American community is barely over 2% and I have to think that played into their decision,” said Kirsten Park, marketing director for Pioneer Theatre Company. “As a nonprofit theater, however, we have a mission to bring stories to the stage that are important to tell, regardless of profitability and we are generously supported by donors who support that mission.

“Many of the ideas in the musical about race and color are not understood or experienced by the majority of the Utah population. (Artistic director) Karen Azenberg and (director) Gerry (McIntyre) understood that and felt that is exactly why this story needed to be told here.”

There is a version of this family-friendly production shown in local schools where class and income are the delineators rather than skin tone. Despite the challenges of getting the musical scheduled in the Beehive State, McIntyre is hopeful audiences will appreciate the artistic storytelling and the temporary escape from reality that the show provides.

“The fact that this was so well written, it’s 90 minutes. There’s no intermission. The ride, the journey is so lean and the music is fantastic,” McIntyre said. “You’re transported into this place and for 90 minutes, you’ll be happy until you get to the car. You may not get past the parking lot, but I know for that 90 minutes you’ll feel some warmth inside.”

Based on a novel titled “My Love, My Love” or “The Peasant Girl,” by Rosa Guy, the musical tells the story of a poor girl on a tropical island who employs the strength of love to bring people of different social classes together.

The story takes place in sea village in the Caribbean where Ti Moune, a young peasant girl, falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a grand homme or rich boy. Their romance is guided by the gods who rule the island and direct Ti Moune on a journey to find with the man who captured her heart. Their quest for love transforms the lives of the people on the island.

“The message that I would love for everyone to take home is that love conquers all, even if it ends badly,” said McIntyre. “That’s what Ti Moune does in this musical. She’s honest and true and she’ll die for love.”

Beyond examining racism, the production also seeks to educate theatergoers about how colorism and classism have wreaked havoc in the African American community and other communities of color.

“In our race — most people don’t know — there is a thing about light skin and dark-skinned people and it’s still prevalent today,” said McIntyre, who is African American.

“To me, the funny part is when we segregate within our own race,” he continued. “It’s a thing that I can’t wrap my brain around.”

He lamented how colorism within the black community goes back to slavery when darker skinned slaves worked the fields while the lighter skinned slaves worked inside their owner’s homes. This separated classes even among the race and is an important part of history that plays out among Blacks and other people of color, including Native Americans and Latins, he added.

“Once on This Island” challenges the audience to reevaluate how we all treat people differently within every race, he said.

“The entire message is love no matter the complexion, period,” said actor Derrick Cobey, who plays Tonton Julian, Ti Moune’s adoptive father. “Beauty and love come in all different shapes, sizes, sexual orientations, statuses and colors. I want our audiences to know that.”

He said the musical tries to convey to people that there should be more depth to the way people see each other rather than just superficially, be it looks, race or social status.

“We’ve got to see what’s inside people. This skin we have doesn’t make us who we are as people, as human beings,” Cobey said. “We’re human beings, period, at the end of the whole thing.”

He said the main theme of the show is summed up in a song titled, “Part of the Human Heart,” that is sung by the god of love. He added that this is the kind of show that reminds him of why he wanted to become a stage performer years ago.

“The whole reason I’m an actor is because I want to open up people’s minds. I want to move them,” Cobey said. “I want them to think outside of their normal days and their normal activities. Those are the stories I think are important.”

“Once on This Island” runs through March 7 at Pioneer Theatre Company on the University of Utah campus.