A timely production showcasing some of the most celebrated and cherished elements of black culture will open Thursday, Feb. 14, in McCrary Theatre. Elon University’s musical theatre production of “Once on This Island” utilizes African dancing, drums and storytelling as motifs throughout the show.

The story takes place in a community on the Antilles Islands and revolves around protagonist Timoune, a young island girl who is faced with choosing between her community and a different one. She is faced with deciding between love and death while seeking an adventure that is constantly influenced by the gods. 

Timoune’s story has a broader message of hope, faith and tradition within this community. The cast is enthusiastic, and though some might attribute this to the actual script and music, the cast said it is because it’s the first time many of them have had the opportunity to perform together as people of color at Elon.

Senior Bria Kelley said she’s noticed fewer opportunities for people of color in Elon’s musical theatre program. 

“It’s kind of like we’re the random people in the back,” Kelley said. “We from the back have our little spotlights, but then we disappear because we’re overpowered by white people.”

This is the last main-stage show for Kelley, and she said it brings her pride. 

“This is the first time that this has actually ever happened, that we’ve been on stage together, and we’ve become a family from it,” Kelley said. 

Junior Kamal Lado plays Agwe, a god with a big power ballad titled “Rain.”

“Students at Elon don’t get to see shows like this very often, and they don’t have the opportunity to see shows that are about people of color told by people of color,” Lado said. “So, being able to celebrate and uplift that diversity at Elon, I think it’s very important for our community.”

Black History Month celebrates all areas of the African diaspora — those who descended from the main continent.

Oftentimes, Caribbean and Afro-Latino cultures can be overlooked in the month’s celebrations. National Geographic estimated more than 8 million Africans were shipped to the Caribbean and South America. In comparison, around 0.5 million came to the continental United States.

Amy Johnson, the director of the Elon Core Curriculum and associate professor of history, specializes in Caribbean and cultural studies and gave a lecture on Caribbean history to the musical theatre students during the rehearsal process. 

“Just having the opportunity, not only as actors but as people of color, to really hear this history that is so ingrained in who we are is incredible,” Lado said. 

But the production hit a few unexpected road bumps along the way. Traditionally, the cast for “Once on This Island” has been all black. Elon’s cast is mostly black but not completely. 

A few posters and fliers that were posted on social media raised some questions about Elon’s casting choices. Some of the backlash surrounded the casting of freshman Willem Butler, who is white. He is playing the role of Daniel, Timoune’s love interest from the other wealthier part of the island.

“I think that people should come and see the show to really understand why the casting is the way it is,” Butler said. “It’s all explained in the show and it, it is justified and we as a cast talked about it.”

He said there’s more to it than just the fliers.

“If you’re looking at it just on a picture, you’re not really going to get the whole story,” Butler said. “You’re going to have to come see the show to actually understand why he does the way it is.”

Lado agrees and hopes the audience will come away with a broader message.

“I strongly stand by those choices, and I think [the casting] is still effective and they don’t affect the story at all,” Lado said. 

For Lado, it’s more important for the program to progress in the direction of diverse casting and inclusion. 

“I hope that because we had some sort of issues with the casting, the department can move forward and how we grow our program,” Lado said.

Butler said he is also still processing the entire experience.

“In all honesty, I’ve never been a part of a cast that has been majority African-American, which is very sad,” Butler said. “But it’s also been one of the most caring and wonderful casts I’ve ever been a
part of.”

Lado said the show brought him on a personal journey.

“‘Once on This Island’ has made me appreciate being black.”