In ‘Once on This Island’ actress explores color, class, and power of love

Photo by Lelund Thompson Actress Cassondra James of ‘Once On This Island’

When actress and Ph.D. candidate Cassondra James approached her advisors about doing her dissertation about stand-up comedy, she basically got the response she expected. “To propose doing my dissertation on stand-up comedy was very tough,” she recalled. “The reaction I got from my advisors—who will remain nameless—was, ‘You can’t write about stand-up comedy because people will laugh at you!’” As with most things, the veteran theater actress is able to laugh at the memory.

New York City-based James will be at the Ordway February 4 through February 9 starring in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Once on This Island,” based on Rosa Guy’s novel, “The Peasant Girl.”

Replete with magical realism and fantastical elements and featuring choreography by Camille A. Brown (“Jesus Christ Superstar Live”), the story takes place on a Caribbean island. As a storm rages during the night, the storytellers tell a scared little girl the tale of Ti Moune a courageous, idealistic, and selfless peasant girl who falls in love with one of the island’s grands hommes, Daniel Beauxhomme. As he lies on the verge of death, she offers her own life to save his. Ti Moune risks it all for a love that’s anything but guaranteed. The grand hommes are the residents of the island who all tend to be lighter-skinned, upper class, and insular.

James portrays Erzulie, the Goddess of Love. “Erzulie is really the catalyst for the story,” she explains. “She is the one who saves the stories about this little girl who was saved from death.” Erzulie is the one who saves the little girl and then goes on to make a bet with Papa Ge, The Demon of Death, that love can conquer death. “She really is the instigator of all the action,” stated James. “I love that!” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think people tend to believe love can be a catalyst for subversive acts.”

One of the most remarkable things about this production is its verisimilitude. “I think,” said James, “people will be struck by all the elements that have been incorporated. The rain, the fog, the sand, and the fire. It’s pretty realistic and it’s pretty amazing. Also, the score is phenomenal.” Ahrens and Flaherty got a Tony nomination for Best Score during the original Broadway production in 1991.

The musical doesn’t shy away from mentioning such uncomfortable issues and James is pleased it opens the door for much-needed dialogue. “I find it strange I never get asked about these issues since the show is about colonization, classism, and colorism in a way. It’s a sad tale of the Beauxhommes which is a history of colonization and a history of rape. These people who are lighter-skinned have higher status than the peasants and engage in systemic acts of violence against them. Conflicts that have arisen historically and in the present day around those issues.”

When she isn’t touring the country playing Erzalie, James continues writing her dissertation on stand-up comedy which she said she did, not because she was necessarily a huge fan of comedy, but to uncover truth. “For me, it’s about dimensions of truth and how we can get at the pulse of what’s happening politically,” said James.

The research has caused her to develop her own opinions on controversial statements sometimes made by comedians. “When I was talking to comedians about this issue what they were saying was within comedy there needs to be space for people to go too far and be corrected. The goal is to make people laugh in stand-up so when a comedian tells a joke that’s racist, sexist, transphobic the most helpful thing that people can do is say ‘No, that’s not funny.'”

James doesn’t agree with the so-called cancel culture. “We need people to make mistakes and I really believe it’s important that people be corrected with kindness because if not, people don’t have the space to be redeemed, and I think that’s ultimately what humanity is about—redemption.”

“Once on This Island” runs until Feb. 9 at The Ordway, 345 Washington Street in St. Paul. Go here for tickets.