TUTS Presents ‘Once on This Island’
Kyle Ramar Freeman plays Asaka, a female interpretation of the Haitian voodoo god of the harvest.
A young gay actor plays Mother Earth when the North American touring company of the jubilant musical Once on This Island plays February 18–March 1 at the Hobby Center’s Theatre Under the Stars.
“Can it get any better than this?” Kyle Ramar Freeman asks. “I’m this gay Black boy who gets to sing and act and put on a dress,” he says. “Most people in the audience think I am a woman. That’s the magic of theater: you can fool people that way.”
Freeman plays Asaka, a female interpretation of the Haitian voodoo god of the harvest.
The Miami, Florida, native wanted to become a part of Once on This Island from the moment in 2017 when he heard that the musical had been revived on Broadway with Alex Newell (of Glee fame) playing Asaka. The show won Best Revival of a Musical at the 2018 Tony Awards.
Newell, who identifies as a cisgender, nonconforming gay man, was the first male to play Asaka. “I am filling in for him, so I am filling some big shoes,” Freeman admits.
When Freeman responded to an open call for the part in the North American tour, there was less competition than he expected—until he realized that not everybody can hit Asaka’s high notes.
“I had three auditions,” he says. “The open call, then a callback, then a callback that included Lynn and Stephen,” referring to show creators Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and out composer Stephen Flaherty (music). The duo also penned the musical Seussical and the score for the movie Anastasia, and won Tony Awards for Ragtime.
They based the show on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy. Its main character is Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl in search of her place in the world, and ready to risk it all for love. Guided by the mighty island gods, Ti Moune sets out on a remarkable journey to reunite with the young man who has captured her heart.
Playing opposite Freeman is American Idol alum Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge, a male god.
Freeman grew up in Miami, Florida, as the baby of the family with three brothers and two sisters. He attended both elementary and secondary arts magnet schools, saying, “It was always art, dance, music. My first lead role was Horton in Horton Finds a Who, playing an elephant. The next year, I was the lion in The Wizard of Oz.”
Two weeks after graduating from high school, Freeman moved to New York City, where he studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. “It was great,” he says. “It’s a conservatory, so we had dance three times a week, acting three times a week, and private voice lessons.”
Freeman was 23 when he came out, “not too long ago,” he says. “Oh, listen, I come from the church. Everybody has their own timing, and a lot of times it takes a while for folks to become comfortable with who they are and be able to share that with others.”
Some Houston audience members will be seated onstage with the cast, to approximate the intimacy of the Broadway production of Once on This Island, which was performed “in the round” at Circle in the Square Theatre in Midtown Manhattan.
“Our set is built so that 50 audience members are onstage with us,” says Freeman. “It feels great. You have to always be honest; you have to always be ‘in it’ when people can watch you in a much closer way. You get to have fun with them, too, by saying certain lines to them. It feels freeing.”
Freeman also shares the stage with a number of “black and brown people” from the 2017 Broadway revival, including Tamyra Gray and Cassondra James, Tony nominee Phillip Boykin, Courtnee Carter, and Tyler Hardwick.
The show’s director, Michael Arden, was nominated for a Tony for directing the Broadway revival. He says, “This company of Once on This Island is truly an embarrassment of riches for me as a director.” Arden is an out native of Midland, Texas, where he performed with the Pickwick Players at Midland Community Theatre.
Freeman also portrayed Calypso in the national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Other favorite roles include William Barfée in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Lord Pinkleton in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.