KENNESAW, Ga. | Oct 10, 2023
Tony Award-winning musical at Kennesaw State bursts to life with Afro-Caribbean rhythms
Kennesaw State University’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies (TPS) will present the Tony Award-winning musical “Once on This Island: The Musical” in the Stillwell Theater on Nov. 2-5 and Nov. 9-12. Tickets are $12-$20 and are available online or by calling Patron Services at 470-578-6650.
Written by Lynn Ahrens, with music by Stephen Flaherty, the musical is the universal tale of Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl in search of her place in the world, and ready to risk it all for love. Guided by the mighty island gods, Ti Moune sets out on a remarkable journey to reunite with the man who captured her heart. With the power to inspire and heal, the story is simply, beautifully told.
Director and Guest Artist Kayce Denise, a full-time teacher at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville, Ga., appreciates the importance of the storytelling basis, as it “comes from the people. Sometimes, stories have been taken away from their culture, erased, or given a different perspective. This story tends to learn towards the people of that [particular] place, and the characters can own their stories, share that story, keep that story going. This is why we can continue; we have the person who keeps the history going. That’s why it’s important,” she says.
“We’re bringing stories to life—it’s the center of what we do in TPS—and we expose ourselves to how storytelling can occur,” says Amanda Wansa Morgan, Artistic Director, Coordinator of Musical Theatre, and Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies. “Once on This Island: The Musical” starts with a present-day event, and then ventures into a story within a story. “The musical starts with a literal storm, and examines what communities do to recover, and how people in those communities keep their stories alive,” adds Morgan.
Theatre student Ebony Golden (Acting, 2025) is also trying to keep the stories alive in her role as dramaturg under Tom Fish, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Resident Dramaturg. Her favorite song from the robust score is “Why We Tell the Story,” because “it’s a wonderful, beautiful song, and, at the end of the day, we should be telling our stories, we have to take ownership over who is telling our stories—and not allow people to change it and make it into their own story.”
Golden and her team have examined many issues from the musical that are still current today, including colonialism, colorism, and environmental concerns. The dramaturgical team has also delved into the Afro-Caribbean culture and community, including what’s it’s like to live and work in the community, and how hurricanes can be an influence in their daily lives. They review small details of how produce is sold, or items traded, and how food and spirituality play into the culture, particularly of Haiti, home to the characters.
“We share our research with the actors, including information on the gods—the puppeteers of the show—and the influence of the gods may impact the storytellers alongside the women and men of Haiti,” says Golden. Some of the students are of Caribbean descent, and Golden has asked them to bring in information about their own families. The storytellers then use the collective information to develop their characters, whether through spoken word or music.
The musical score bursts to life with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and instruments, accomplished with a live band and strong vocal power from the ensemble. “We have a live band—a combination of Bailey School of Music students and professionals—and it’s been a lot of fun,” says Morgan. Percussion also plays a large role in the show, provided by guest artist Imani Quinoñes, who was a student at Berkley College of Music; her father is one of Atlanta’s premiere Latin jazz percussionists.
In addition to a large cast of 30 actors, including understudies, the student company is comprised of musicians, tech crew members, costume, lighting, and set designers, and dramaturgical and choreography assistants. Angela Harris, Executive Artistic Director of Dance Canvas, Inc., and past guest lecturer for KSU’s Department of Dance, is bringing dance choreography to the stage, and it’s not extra or icing on top. Rather, dance is “intrinsic to the story. People are moving when words are not enough,” says Harris.
Before working on the musical, Harris researched Afro-Caribbean traditional dance. Since then, she’s had a lot of conversations with the cast. She tells them “don’t think about performing for the audience, but bring the audience into the stories that we are telling. That’s hard, but I would rather have the audience looking in and feeling like they are watching this story emerge. It’s a different way of approaching movement and choreography, as is storytelling,” she adds.
Denise asks, “Why do we go see ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘Peter Pan?’ We can live vicariously through these characters. These young people are having a blast! Unleash the dragons! We are going to lay this out for people to consume. It’s going to be beautiful.”
Morgan adds that there is “so much joy inherent in this production, this life-affirming celebration of Afro-Caribbean life. Above everything else is relationships. Our students are full of joy, and we are excited to have the opportunity to share it.”
Click below to see costume sketches furnished by Ricky Greenwell, Assistant Professor of Costume Design at TPS.