Dallas — Once on This Island opens this week at the Winspear as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s 2019-2020 Broadway Series. This musical, based on Rosa Guy’s novel The Peasant Girl, and written by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), originally opened on Broadway in 1990. The 2017 revival was awarded the 2018 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Courtnee Carter was in the Broadway show as the understudy for Ti Moune. She is now starring as Ti Moune in the national tour.
We had a delightful chat with her and learned a little about what drives her and informs her embrace of this story.
TheaterJones: This show originally opened on Broadway in 1990. Why do you think Once on This Island still resonates so strongly with audiences today?
Courtnee Carter: I think the show still has some of those core messages of hope, determination, compassion, generosity and love. Those are still relevant, the things that connect us as humans. People come to the theatre to see that little slice of life. The story is just so beautiful.
It takes place after a hurricane when people are devastated and have nothing. It celebrates the coming together of a community, of rebuilding out of nothing and really appreciating the things they do have. The devastation we have been having from the hurricanes in Haiti, the Bahamas and southern Florida, it’s really important for people to see these things. Things happen every day. Everyone understands love, hardships. It is relatable.
Have you been or lived in an area that is prone to flooding or super storms such as hurricanes?
Yes. I am originally from Jacksonville, Florida. We are in Northeast Florida and so have missed the direct brunt, but we definitely have had scares. When I moved to New York, my family had to evacuate and go to Georgia. We have been fortunate that we did not lose our house. We have experienced some flooding but nothing too terrible. So, it’s scary, a very real thing. You never know when it could be you next.
Would it be fair to say the setting for this story is not abstract for you? That you did not have to reach very far to understand Ti Moune?
With Ti Moune, I can see a lot of myself I her. She knows she was put on this planet for a purpose. She is very driven and does not take no for an answer. That is relatable to me because I have been doing arts since I was little girl, starting with studying piano at 7. I have been singing and dancing and doing theatre since childhood and have known from a very young age that this is what I am supposed to do. I attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and went on to move to New York. Though I got a lot of “no’s,” I continued on because I knew this is what I was supposed to be doing.
I used all of that to create my approach to Ti Moune. Part of that too was from the hurricanes, through knowing that devastation and pain, and the fear. All of this is very relatable for me and I use it with every performance.
What to you is Ti Moune’s greatest strength? What is the thing you most want to come through to audiences?
Her determination. She fights to the very end. She’s so strong headed. She has a clear view of what she wants in life. I think her determination is very admirable. People can also take away that she is a loving person. She doesn’t see the hate.
What for you has been the biggest surprise or most unexpected thing about being in this show?
I had a lot of expectations and most of them have been fulfilled. But the thing that most exceeded my expectations was what it is like to bring Broadway to audiences who do not get to see them. Little girls have come up to me and said this was their first Broadway show, and that they have never seen a musical. It’s so amazing to see their reaction. Such a warm energy has been so rewarding for me because you see, I was that little girl. I remember seeing The Lion King when I was 10 years old living in Jacksonville. I thought it was the most amazing thing. Having people say that back to me, I can understand how it can turn their world upside down. That has been the most surprising thing about touring.
What has been the most challenging part of the role?
There’s no such thing as perfection. Art is imperfect. We are constantly growing and changing. I have to go into those dark places every night instead of just once every two weeks. It takes a lot of focus, conditioning, exercising and vocal preparation. That is necessary to be authentic to myself as Courtnee, and authentic to the character, and the playwright, and the music.
Rosa Guy, author of the book upon which the musical is based, (The Peasant Girl) was a prolific writer of children’s books. Her own childhood had been difficult. What do you think young black girls can take away from the story of Ti Moune?
At Ti Moune’s core is love and compassion and determination. Every black girl can have a goal, a dream, and go for it without taking no for an answer no matter how society tries to label you. Ti Moune is called a peasant constantly but she does not limit herself in that way. She doesn’t care what color he is. I am going to marry this rich person. She is supposed to save him. That was her dream. They can takeaway that you are not a stereotype. You are not a cookie cutter. You can be whatever you want to be. I hope they can take that love, hope and determination and spread it around to everyone across ethnicities, generations and socio-economic levels.