Peninsula Community Theater has a story to share. Grab a mat and enjoy the island sounds as this amazing cast sweeps you away to Once on this Island.
Opening night was a marvelous experience at PCT. The red carpet was rolled out and the crowd was dressed in their island best. There were lots of vibrant colors to be seen as the guests filled their seats wearing outfits that seem to be inspired by the story they had come to watch. Jeffrey Corriveau’s set design draws you in as soon as you walk into the theater. You are immediately immersed in an island setting with clotheslines hanging from the various walls and lots of greenery that depicts a luscious venue. The stage itself looks like a beach with a huge rock and a sparkling waterfall. The background music and murmuring crowd was inviting, and a great way to begin the evening.
About ten minutes before the house lights dim, the storytellers come into the audience and begin interacting with everyone. Clifford Clark was amusing as he wandered around with his drum having random people try to hit it. Some audience members made a successful strike and had quite a beat while others missed as he quickly pulled the drum out of reach and had a good laugh at their expense. It was done in good fun and the audience ate it up! While the storytellers were in the audience, there were other cast members on stage feeding off of the crowd energy. There was dancing, and Clark made it back to the stage and began to hit out a rhythm.
The lights fell and the music rose. Immediately Ashanti Symone Branch’s choreography sucks you in. The fluidity of the moves and the transitions between styles was seamless and genius. The choreography grew as the story grew throughout the performance with obvious influence from the Pacific Islands’ hula moving through some modern inspiration and personal choreography and incorporating some traditional African dancing. One of my favorite elements was during “Mama Will Provide.” Branch brought the island to life with the choreography of the birds and trees and wind. I didn’t see people. I saw an island coming to life and it was very well executed by a talented cast.
The riveting choreography was complemented by a cast full of talented singers. Standouts for me include Zakiyyah Jackson as Akasa, Rico Robinson as Agwe, and my two personal favorites Sheila Diggs Jones as Mama Euralie and Tra’ Waan Coles as Papa Ge, who brought to life a character that embodied the playful evil of an impish God of Death.
Jackson presented a complete package with her lithe movements and strong voice. She embodied the Goddess she portrayed; the Goddess of Life. Her costume, which was designed by Torrie Sanders, accentuated the movement and absolutely suited the character. Robinson had a smooth presentation and silky voice that was simply spot on and leaves you wanting more. Jones, ahhhhhh…. Her power and range is majestic! She reminded me of Della Reese with her presence, composure, and performance. She managed to help singers with less talent sound incredible during their duets and ensemble. She was a glue that held the pieces together to provide a strong vocal picture. Coles is another gem of this performance. His dulcet tones and Dr. Facilier-esque manner was a riveting sight. Sanders’ costume design for him was the bow that tied the whole package together. I wanted more of him and wish the story had room to incorporate the character deeper into the body of work.
The other members of this large cast contributed to the success of this performance. The main character, Ti Moune, was portrayed by Zainab Mustapha. She is beautiful and enchanting in her performance. I’m not certain if there were opening night jitters or her confidence hasn’t peaked, but she seemed shy in her performance. That being said, I absolutely see potential for growth, and I have no doubt as the show runs her performance will only get better! I enjoyed the performance of Kelsey Clark as she imitated water using flags during “Pray.” She reminded me of Marching Band Color Guard performers with her flowing moves. Michelle Ford and Janae Thompson were so in sync as they performed as birds during “Mama Will Provide” that it was a reflection of the dedication and investment the ladies made to the performance. Corrin Morgan as Andrea and Jeffrey Miller as Daniel were the characters that you loved to hate. They fed off of the energy the audience was giving them and seemed to be inspired to push it a little more as some of the audience made it personal and called out the occasional “Oh no he didn’t!” and “That ain’t right!”
Another key to the success is the harmony and performance of the four gods and goddesses who watch over the story. They were definitely a unit and you could see the hard work and effort they contributed. Between missing rehearsals for snow days and school finals, you do not see anything but a professional presence. Coles, Robinson, Jackson, and Deedra Chambers were a joy to watch and listen to as they performed. I enjoyed Chambers’ performance as the Goddess Erzulie who represents love. I can’t imagine anyone else portraying the character and bringing the balance to the Gods and Goddesses she brings.
This show would not be what it is without all of the fabulous costumes created by Sanders. Her vision of the appearance was spot on in my mind. The light design by Scott Hayes had some ups and downs. There are times that the performers are in the sidelines singing and you couldn’t see who had a solo or was performing because the lights were so dim. You were also unable to follow when the performers came into the audience, spots were not on point. On the other hand, Hayes embodied the feel of the island and the general lighting was successful. The sound design by Chris Grafton contributed to the story, but there were definite issues with some of the cast being mic’d and others being drowned out by the pre-recorded music that was a little too loud during parts of the show. Finally, the hair and make-up created by Lisa Singleton and Lavone Johnson fused the costumes to the look and composed a complete package.
This musical is not the typical story that is told in the local theater community. It was a bold choice not only because director Charity Robinson wanted to make a statement through the casting of an all African American cast, but also because it is a show that is currently experiencing a revival on Broadway. I had the opportunity to ask Robinson and some of the cast how they felt knowing that the show was also playing on Broadway. I asked if they were intimidated or encouraged. Without hesitation, each person glowed and claimed they were inspired by the professional performers. In fact, opening night the Broadway cast filmed a message that was sent and played to the cast at PCT before the show wishing them many broken legs for their run. Robinson went on to explain she wanted “to tell the story with an all African American cast to make a statement; to show that there is more to the African American narrative than housekeepers and slaves.” The audience in attendance reflected a desire to hear the story being told. Her vision was clear and concise as the actors played their parts with talent, passion, and professionalism.
It’s story time on the island. Come, pull up a mat, and enjoy all that they have to offer. You won’t regret it!
Find out yourself why they tell the story at PCT through March 11th. Tickets here! https://app.arts-people.