Want to escape the tundra but don’t have the budget or time to jet to the Caribbean? Some Twin Cities theaters bring the tropics to us.
Three shows — “Once on This Island,” “Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds” and “How Black Mothers Say I Love You” — deal with tropical themes or are set in places that Minnesotans are keen to visit this time of year. While being transported to fantastic realms that inspired magical realism, we can have more than just a tourist experience with the cultures presented onstage.
“Island,” Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s effusive 1990 musical whose Broadway tour opens Tuesday at the Ordway, is probably the splashiest of the tropical theater shows. Set on an island in the French Antilles that has been devastated by a hurricane, the fairy tale marries “Romeo and Juliet” with “The Little Mermaid.” In the story, Ti Moune, a poor, dark-skinned peasant girl, falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a wealthy, light-skinned man.
The New York Times called the Tony-winning 2017 revival “a big, bold delight,” while the Hollywood Reporter used words such as “ravishing” and “glorious” to describe a production with “melodies … firmly grounded in the Broadway musical vernacular [and] infused with Caribbean rhythms without veering into cultural appropriation.”
Syncopated beats also drive the colorful and ebullient regional premiere of “Three Little Birds” at the Children’s Theatre Company. The one-act musical, which takes place in Jamaica and features 15 songs by the late king of reggae, revolves around Ziggy, a boy who survived a frightening storm. Now traumatized and timid, he gains confidence and courage to come out of his shell with the help of his community.
“Three Little Birds” has two kinds of warmth, Star Tribune theater critic Chris Hewitt wrote — “the kind you get from a friendly welcome and the kind you get in the tropics.”
“This show is about celebration but also about resilience as people survive, transform and influence the world around them,” said Shá Cage, director of “Three Little Birds.” Cage aimed to convey not just warmth, but a feeling from Marley’s music. The show carries the “rhythm, the heartbeat, the drum, and things that you can’t necessarily just hear or see or touch.”
The tropical trend continues at Penumbra Theatre, where, in April, “How Black Mothers Say I Love You” will be staged. Written by Trey Anthony, the drama plumbs the emotional trauma that fills the void when a mother leaves her child in Jamaica for six years while she goes to the U.S. to find work.
Signe Harriday is slated to direct this show that also touches on timely issues.
“It’s a bittersweet story of mothers and daughters, but it also addresses the question of immigration and whether or not we can be compassionate to people who work so hard to ensure better opportunities for their children,” said Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of Penumbra Theatre. “I hadn’t anticipated how much the U.S. would be turning its back on the Caribbean, especially with what’s happening with Puerto Rico, when we programmed this show. If anything, I hope we can appreciate our shared humanity as we sit in a theater together, hearing each other’s gasps and laughs.”
At its best, theater — like film, books and other art forms — transports audiences to different places psychically, emotionally and intellectually. Shows can be portals to new knowledge or aspirational forms of escape.
The Twin Cities theaters seek to entertain and broaden horizons. “Island” and “Birds” both feature hurricanes as destructive catalysts — scaring protagonist Ziggy in “Three Little Birds” and forcing two people together under emergency circumstances who may not ordinarily interact in “Island.”
And both musicals have spiritual dimensions drawn from the islands’ complicated histories that include colonialism and bondage. In fact, the characters’ belief systems in the musicals can be traced to Africa. The vodou that predominates in “Island” nods to this lineage, including characters such as Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Agwé, the God of Water; Erzulie, Goddess of Love, and Papa Ge, the Demon of Death.
“Three Little Birds” is informed by obeah, Jamaica’s corollary to vodou, and the show’s villain is named Duppy, after the duppies, or ghosts, that are widely believed in by folks in the island’s countryside.
Economic disparities and privations wrought by that history, and by new catastrophes, also are at play in the backdrops of all the works. Jamaica and Haiti, where “Three Little Birds” and “Island” take place, respectively, are, by American standards, poor. Yet, the characters in these musicals don’t measure their worth by their possessions, showing pride in how they repurpose and transform the things that they have.
Such resourcefulness also informed the choices of the creative teams behind these shows. “Island” costume designer Clint Ramos used the phrase “turning the discarded into the divine” to describe his approach to the vibrant patchwork clothing of the show’s characters.
A similar ethos also held sway at the Children’s Theatre, said “Three Little Birds” director Cage. You can see it not just in the colors and the costumes, but in “the history that’s stitched together, in the [go] cart that Cedella has. I love that part of the culture. I’ve got three sticks over here and some wheels. I can make something of this.”
Audiences who see these tropical-themed shows will have more than a glancing tourist experience.
“Obviously, the show deals with themes of colonization and colorism and class, themes that we’re still grappling with,” said Cassondra James, who plays Erzulie in “Island.” “The question is how do we love and offer forgiveness? How do we take the brokenness that’s all around us and make something whole?”
James, who spoke from Chicago, where “Island” played before coming to the Twin Cities, said that the show has lessons for us all.
“People come to the theater for the entertainment and music and great design — there’s a lot to thrill an audience,” she said. “But there’s also a message around ecological devastation. The people of the island are trying to piece together a world. Piece by piece, we take the scraps of our lives and create something beautiful and sacred.”