A few years ago my daughter was at a summer theater camp where they staged a production of “Once on this Island Jr.”
The show is set on an unnamed island (Haiti) in the Caribbean (seriously, it’s Haiti). The show is about the class divisions (in Haiti) and depicts a contest among the gods (all named after and patterned on the loa) that plays out as a love story between a peasant girl and the son of a boujwa family.
Seriously, the show couldn’t be more obviously about Haiti if it tried. The social structure is Haitian,the names are all Haitian, and the snippets of language sprinkled through the show are Kreyol. The original Broadway cast even used Haitian accents. These are parts that are all black, except for the boujwa young man, who probably is mulatto, what we in America would call biracial.
Almost everyone at the camp was white. A few kids were Hispanic. One or two were biracial.
White kids playing Haitians. White kids playing the loa.
I didn’t say anything at the time, or at least not too much, but this really bothered me. Being black is essential to the nature of these parts and the country where it’s set. This felt like an act of erasure, of whitewashing. Not intentional, just thoughtless, insensitive, careless and dumb. No excuse.
I love to shake up the casting in shows with an eye toward racial inclusivity, but I feel like if you’re going to do “Once on this Island,” you’d better have either a solidly black cast, or a backup show planned.
Anything else is just rude.
Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.