Weeks before rehearsal started for "Once On This Island," the Juneau-Douglas High School spring operetta about a poor peasant girl on an unnamed island resembling Haiti, the 50-member cast set about studying Caribbean culture.
The process was revelatory, to say the least.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, sits 50 miles southeast of Cuba in the Caribbean Sea. Eighty percent of the country was living in abject poverty in 2004, according to its embassy. But Haiti is still cleaning up from last September's tropical storm Jeane, which killed at least 2,000, left hundreds of thousands more homeless and obliterated the farmable land throughout the mostly agricultural nation.
"I didn't realize how poor Haiti was, and how drastic the situation down there is," said junior Katie Monagle.
"It's been a great experience to learn how these people are and how different they are from our culture," said junior Mary Joy Yadao, a member of the chorus.
Directed by Ryan Conarro and Bethany Bereman, "Once On This Island" plays at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 18-19 and 25-26, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.
A charity performance for the Art Creation Foundation for Children, a nonprofit in Jacmel, Haiti, for 6- to 12-year-olds, will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27, at the auditorium.
Advance tickets for all performances are available at Hearthside Books and cost $5 for children (eighth grade and younger), $8 for students and seniors, $10 for general admission and $30 for families. Door tickets are $2 more.
"Once" tells the tale of Ti Moune, a young orphan stranded in a tree after a devastating storm. She's saved by a kindly couple, a man and woman who become her guardians.
Growing up, she yearns to know her place in the world. One day, she rescues a wealthy city boy, Daniel, from a car crash. She sells her soul to the god of death, Papa Ge, in order to save his life.
"Eventually they bring Daniel back to the city, and Ti Moune is in love with him, so she follows him," said junior Carly Varness, a storyteller. "They have a romance, but then she learns that she's betrothed to this other high class French lady. They can't get married and they have no future together."
Senior Savanna Kirkpatrick plays Andrea, Daniel's rich would-be wife.
"I basically come back and put everyone in their place," Kirkpatrick said. "I play a really big brat and had a good time doing it."
The rest of the story chronicles her journey, as Papa Ge and the gods of Earth (Asaka), Water (Agwe) and Love (Erzulie) test and watch over her.
The play includes 20 original songs and was choreographed by Zoe Hawkins-Wells, a dancer from Key West who worked on the last JDHS play, "Jungal-book."
"The story is saying if you truly love a person, you can conquer anything, just like the gods say," said freshman Sammi Webb, who plays young Ti Moune. "You can withstand the Earth, withstand the sea and the storm, and conquer death."
"It's about storytelling, and the importance of passing down stories from generation to generation," said Valorie Kissel, who plays Madame Armand.
"Ti Moune is pretty much happy with everything she has, except she wants to learn her journey," said freshman Clairen Stone, the grown-up Ti Moune. "Her parents tell her that the gods saved her for a reason, and as she grows up she yearns to get her life going."
Written by Lynn Ahrens, with music by Stephen Flaherty, "Once On This Island," is based on the book "My Love, My Love," by Rosa Guy. In the novel, the orphan Ti Moune is trampled by a mob at the end of the story. The play, though brooding at times, is decidedly more upbeat.
"Once On This Island" premiered at the Booth Theater on Broadway on Oct. 18, 1990, was nominated for eight Tony Awards in 1991. The New York Times compared the play to Disney's "The Little Mermaid," and Seinfeld star Jason Alexander has been trying to bring the play to film, according to Ahrens and Flaherty's Web site, www.ahrensandflaherty.com.
"It's kind of like Romeo and Juliet in an odd way," said Monagle, who plays Mama Euralie, Ti Moune's adopted mother. "It's about storytelling, and it shows that race should not be a barrier for love and relationships."
"I can almost see that," said senior Sophie Lager, the goddess Erzulie. "The basic story is fairly similar, but in 'Romeo and Juliet' both characters have everything. In this, they're from totally different cultures."
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com.