‘Once on This Island Jr. will be performed on March 29 and 30 at Bristow Middle School in West Hartford.
By Stephanie Rauch. Photos by Ellen Painter Dollar
On a sunny Saturday morning in March, 50 Bristow middle school students sit side-by-side on stage in the school’s auditorium, listening to rapid-fire notes from their director, choreographer, and musical director.
They fidget a bit, listening intently, and asking questions. This is the first rehearsal with body microphones, and they chuckle at their director’s reminder: “You notice with the mics now, you can hear EVERYTHING you say, right?” [hint hint]
These are the Bristow Players, polishing up their work for their upcoming production of Once on This Island Jr. The show has less name recognition than Bristow’s last few productions: The Sound of Music Jr. (2016) and Fiddler on the Roof Jr. (2017) which are standards, and last year’s Legally Blonde Jr., based on a popular film.
But this family-friendly show, condensed from the original Once on This Island by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (of Seussical and Ragtime fame) and based on the novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy, has “something for everyone, including ‘scary’ parts, humor, and a bit of romance,” says director Sloane Williams, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at the school. “The show has beautiful, fun music,” she continues, “different from the type of songs you might typically hear in other musicals. It’s a show that celebrates the art of storytelling, family, and love.”
Once on This Island Jr. is the story of Ti Moune, an island peasant girl who uses love to break down the social barriers between the wealthy Grand Hommes, owners of the land and masters of their own fate, and the poor peasants, who pray constantly to the gods of Love, Water, Earth and Death who oversee all aspects of their lives. Ti Moune is overheard by the gods as she watches the mysterious Grand Hommes speed by in their fancy cars and laments her uneventful life, wondering aloud when her life will truly begin. Amused by her ramblings, the gods set a journey in motion that will test the strength of love against the power of death.
“This is a great play to show what Bristow kids can do, to show their range, and to show that middle schoolers are able to tackle all kinds of topics,” says Bethany R., who plays Erzulie, the Goddess of Love.
A favorite cast song, “Ti Moune,” reflects some of these topics, which reverberate with middle schoolers, parents, and audience alike. In the song, Ti Moune has decided to go off after her love, much to the dismay of her parents. “The audience can relate to the situation: following your passions and leaving home,” says Sophia C., who plays Ti Moune.
“As parents, knowing what we know about the world, our instinct is to protect our kids,” Williams says. “But no one can stop you from pursuing your dream and from experiencing things that may not always be right for you, but will teach you a lesson in the end, even if the journey is a perilous one.”
Christopher R., one of the Grand Hommes, agrees that “sometimes you have to try to gain independence and not just stay ‘safe.’”
“There are good and bad parts of life,” adds Lili R., whose role is Agwe, Goddess of Water. “You can’t control them, you just have to go with it.”
Ti Moune understands there are differences between the Grand Hommes and peasants, and wants to accept and celebrate those differences, rather than allow them to foster division. Grand Hommes actress Aniyah W likes that the show addresses inequality: “It shows it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor.”
In addition to embracing the themes of the show, members of the cast and crew repeatedly spoke about how much they enjoy the sense of community and camaraderie that being a part of the production brings. For some, this is their first production ever, while others have been performing since preschool.
Last year, Villager Jenny M., now an eighth grader, enjoyed working as a crew member backstage. This year she was inspired to audition to be part of the cast. “I watched how everyone worked together to perform the show and I wanted to be a part of that, too.”
“Working together to make a piece of art brings you closer to the people you know, and you make new friends, too,” says Christopher R. “You make new friends with kids that aren’t in your grade which is really cool,” adds Timmy B., who plays Daniel, the Grand Hommes young man with whom Ti Moune falls in love.
Lili R. agrees: “I like meeting new people throughout the years, going from a nervous sixth grader making friends with eighth graders, to now being one of those eighth graders.”
“I like seeing all the parts come together, says Orian G., a Storyteller. “It is really fun and cool to see all the different parts (lighting, props, costumes, sound) connect.”
Be it acting, singing, dancing, running the light/sound board, working backstage, or calling the show, the skills required of this production aren’t always allowed to shine on a typical school day. But as Timmy points out, “It is really fun to show your talents that people wouldn’t see in you otherwise.” It was clear in talking with the students that they have genuine admiration for each other’s talents and skills.
The sense of connection and community, as well as the theme of celebrating of each other’s differences, is something that Williams hopes the students will take away from the show. “There are so many skills we learn in theater that are life skills: accepting others, being positive, learning give and take, listening, concentration, and reacting to situations on your feet — and these are not just skills we use in the performance itself. They are part of the process of what we do to get there as a group and as a theatre family.” And they translate both inside and outside of the show.
“Although I guess you could say that death ‘technically’ wins in the end, it is really love that conquers death. You see it in the love of the community and how they come together, the love of Ti Moune’s parents, the love of the gods,” explains Maya P., who plays a Villager.
In today’s world, says Benjamin D., the actor who plays Papa Ge, Sly Demon of Death, “we all need to learn how to love everyone, even if they don’t treat you with love.”
And, as eighth-grade Gatekeeper Charlotte W., notes, remember to “tell YOUR story.”
Once on This Island Jr.performances are Friday, March 29 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, March 30 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Bristow Middle School, 34 Highland St., West Hartford. Tickets can be purchased online by going to www.showtix4u.com and searching for “Bristow.”
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!