The award-winning musical Once on This Island, a Caribbean-inspired adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, seems ideal for Black History Month in February. Written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a Tony Award-winning pair of white Jewish-Irish collaborators, some may question its ability to be relevant and authentic. Quincy Starnes, starring in Moore Vision Entertainment’s production of the delightful musical later this month, sheds light on how this piece defies the odds and earns its place as must-see theater.
On the morning of Monday, January 15, as the United States honored the life and legacy of visionary civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Starnes spoke to the pertinence of Once on This Island: “It deals with colorism in the Black community, which is a large issue that doesn’t get talked about a lot.”
From “the brown paper bag test,” a form of colorism-discrimination, to Hollywood’s long history of colorism, this discriminatory practice within the United States can be traced back to slavery, when slave owners gave preferential treatment to enslaved people with lighter skin tones.
Starnes himself has been denied opportunities due to colorism.“When I was 11 years old, I auditioned for a movie called The Long Walk Home, which was a movie with Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek,” Starnes explains. “I had the casting directors tell me that I was not dark enough to believably be Whoopi Goldberg’s son.”
This profoundly affected him, because across his family there are plenty of different skin tones. “I remember The Cosby Show being a big deal at that time,” Starnes adds. “You looked at Sandra and Denise, and then you looked at Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy. None of them were the same color, because that’s not how it works. But people definitely have this vision that, ‘Oh, it doesn’t look right.’”
Another aspect of Once on This Island that may be surprising is the way it invites audiences to sit in “uncomfortableness” in order to learn and grow as individuals.
“Some of us, as Black people, are considered the ‘good’ ones,” Starnes believes. “I grew up in a predominantly white society. I went to private schools. I graduated from Notre Dame. I am considered one of the good ones.”
Despite these qualifiers, though, Starnes has been the victim of racial profiling, which he openly discussed on a Facebook post from June 4, 2020. “I made that post because I needed people to sit in that uncomfortableness [and realize] that even the ones you think are the ‘good’ ones are still oppressed. We are still racially profiled.”
Friends of Starnes immediately reached out to him, admitting that they had no idea that he had experienced these things. “Of course you don’t have any idea, because you don’t have to go through that,” Starnes says. “But they did have to look at their own biases and connotations of what they think, and sit in that uncomfortableness. And I know that some change came out of that.”
In addition to the topic of colorism that is explored in the musical, its ending directly parallels the original conclusion of The Little Mermaid. “Once on This Island makes you sit in that uncomfortableness because it doesn’t end in a nice, pretty way,” he explains.
While Once on This Island has serious messages, the music and story are vibrant and full of whimsy. In fact, the musical reminds audiences that the greatest gift we can offer another person is love. “Love is the strongest force in the universe,” says Starnes. ”As they say in this show, ‘Love can withstand the storm, it can cross the Earth, and it can even conquer death.’”
The central character in Once on This Island, Ti Moune, is a peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a young man from the wealthy side of the island they share. Ti Moune rescues Daniel after his car crashes in a storm, and through her pure love for him she helps him recover from his injuries. Just like The Little Mermaid, Once on This Island shows the duality of this kind of love. “You cannot go out and try to love everyone. You will get stomped,” says Starnes. “What we can’t do is let that hurt jade us and turn us into unloving, unforgiving people. You love to the end, and your love will inspire others to go out and to love and to do huge acts of love on their own.”
Moore Vision Entertainment’s production of Once on This Island runs February 23 through March 2. Tickets are on sale at moorevisionentertainment.com.