Grab your favorite pair of sunglasses, throw on some summer clothes and prepare to be transported to an island full of music, color and emotion during Hoof n’ Horn’s production of Once on This Island.
Hoof ‘n’ Horn, Duke’s student-run musical theater group, has been putting on shows since 1936. This year’s winter production features Once on This Island (OOTI), which won the 2018 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. The former Broadway show is described as “bursting with Caribbean colors, rhythm and dance,” and Hoof ‘n’ Horn strives to bring this same energy to Duke’s stage.
OOTI follows Ti Moune, a peasant girl who rescues and falls in love with a wealthy boy from the other side of the island, Daniel. However, the pompous gods who rule the island make a bet with one another regarding whether love or death is stronger — and the stake of their bet is Ti Moune’s life.
Senior Eka Ebong both directs the show and plays Papa Ge, one of the gods. She said that Once on This Island is one of her favorite shows, not only for its fun story and “beautifully written songs,” but also because it is about Haiti’s culture, which is not centered often in musical theater, Ebong said.
“It tells this coming-of-age story that is both relatable and full of hope, faith, love and wonderful concepts of community, which makes it both a joy to watch and be a part of, because as you’re doing the show you feel those things,” Ebong said.
Daniel Sutton, a senior and producer of the show, said that OOTI is considered a retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” The audience can expect to experience a plethora of emotions that will be conveyed by the cast.
“It's a show that you have to come prepared to feel, and I think if people come with that in mind, they will really experience something wonderful.”
An all-POC cast
Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s production of OOTI features a cast composed entirely of people of color, an initiative that began with the group's production of “In the Heights” in 2019.
In spring 2022, the theater group amended its constitution to state the organization must have at least one show per season that includes mostly or an all-POC cast, according to Sutton.
“Once on This Island is just kind of a manifestation of that kind of new diversity, equity, inclusion initiative from Hoof ‘n’ Horn,” he said.
As the producer, Sutton said he doesn’t have creative input, but he ensures that “the ship is well-oiled and runs smoothly” by selecting the production council and maintaining the rehearsal schedule. A challenge he faced was casting the specific “niche” actors that the show calls for.
“You're looking for students interested in theater, but then you need POC students interested in theater, so it requires even more publicity for your production council and even more publicity to get folks to audition,” Sutton said.
Sutton said tackling this challenge required knowing the show well and having awareness surrounding its historical context.
“For Once on This Island, it’s knowing about Haiti, knowing about the Caribbean and knowing about the music,” he said.
According to Ebong, while the show never directly states that the story takes place on the island of Haiti, all the history mentioned within the story points to Haiti’s history. Thus, an all-POC cast was important so that the people in the cast looked like the people who would have actually inhabited the island at this time, Ebong said.
“Throughout the show, there are all of these themes of colorism and classism that really could only be well-depicted by a cast full of people of color who have firsthand experience with some of these things — in a different context, but still experience with these things,” she said.
In order to ensure that they were being sensitive to this historical context, Sutton said the production council read a lot of material, including the book that the show is based on — “My Love, My Love: or the Peasant Girl,” written by Rosa Guy in 1985. They also had many conversations with the cast and did a lot of “sitting down and conceptualizing, contextualizing and thinking about what was going on [OOTI’s] space and time.”
“If the cast understands what story they're telling, then the audience will better understand why it is that we're telling [the] story,” he said.
‘A better community in the cast’
First-year Gaby Almonte, who plays Andrea Deveraux, had done musical theater growing up and wanted to get back into performing with Hoof ‘n’ Horn. When one of her Project Identity and Culture pre-orientation leaders sent an audition form to a group chat she was in, she saw that the show was an all-POC cast and decided to audition.
“It being an all-POC cast definitely contributed to me participating. A lot of times you don’t get to see that,” Almonte said. “That was something I wanted to be a part of … a better community in the cast, having similar experiences and backgrounds.”
Almonte said that being in the show has been a great way for her and other first-years to meet upperclassmen.
First-year Damilola Bankole, who plays Mama Euralie, said that OOTI is her second show with Hoof ‘n’ Horn. When Bankole found out it was going to be an all-POC show, she knew she had to be a part of it.
“I couldn't stifle my artistic wishes,” she said.
She emphasized the community that she’s found through the show, saying that even when the cast and production council are tired and stressed, knowing that they are doing it together makes the hard work worthwhile.
She also said that a large part of why she feels such a large sense of community is because everyone in the cast is both POC and shares a love of performance and artistry. The shared connection makes her feel more at home.
“Everyone is so incredibly talented and being able to be surrounded by such craftsmanship and intelligent people that are POCs is amazing,” Bankole said.
‘They're going to put something magical on the stage’
With such significant historical context, detailed technical production, talented acting and beautiful music, there are many aspects of OOTI that the cast thinks the Duke community can learn from.
One of the main themes of the show — that life doesn’t always go the way you think it will or want it to, but that there is still hope and goodness at the end — is a beneficial message for anyone to hear, Ebong said.
Sutton hopes that the audience will take lessons away from the show, citing Ti Moune as an example.
“Ti Moune is a peasant girl who finds this dream that she clings to, and all these things are not going right in her life, but she has this hope and this desire that keeps her grounded,” he said. “I think that's something that we can all relate to.”
As a senior, OOTI is the final show that Sutton will produce. While he’s sad that it’s probably his “last hurrah” at Hoof ‘n’ Horn, he’s looking forward to watching the show eight times.
“The cast has been working really hard. A lot of them have stepped out of their comfort zone, and the [production council] as well,” he said. “I'm really proud of the work they've put in, and I think they're going to put something magical on the stage.”
After weeks of preparation and dress rehearsals, Ebong is most excited to see all the sets, makeup and lighting come together on opening weekend. She’s also excited to feel the energy of the audience in the room.
“You put so much time and energy and work into a product, and you're just ready for people to see it, so I'm excited for us to open and start performing in front of people,” she said.
Tickets for Hoof ‘n’ Horn’s production of Once on This Island are available at the Duke University Box Office. The show runs from Feb. 2 to Feb. 12.
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Alison Korn is a Pratt junior and enterprise editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Aida Guo is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.