BWW Interview: Jahmaul Bakare of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Peace Center
Filled with beauty and magic, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND tells the sweeping, universal tale of 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 man who has captured her heart.
Winner of the 2018 Tony Award® for Best Revival Of A Musical, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is now touring North America, arriving at the Peace Center in Greenville, SC, on November 5. Cast members from the 2017 Broadway revival lead the touring company, including Greenville native and Tony Nominee Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian, "American Idol" Alum Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge, Cassondra James as Erzulie, Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune, and Tyler Hardwick as Daniel Beauxhomme. Completing the gods of the island are Kyle Ramar Freeman as Asaka and Jahmaul Bakare as Agwe.
We asked Jahmaul Bakare to tell us more about himself and this magical show.
First, please tell us a little about yourself. I feel like you consider yourself mostly a singer.
Yeah, I mean, I do everything. I've done movies, I've done a little bit of TV and I'm just waiting on the green light for a pilot from Netflix. I've had my hands in a bunch of stuff. But yeah, I went to school for vocal performance and for acting. I went to Morehouse College for vocal performance, and then did my masters at the University of Nevada, in Las Vegas. So I do everything.
Which is nice, right?
Yeah. I keep busy!
Is this your first tour? Or have you toured other shows?
Well, this is my first Broadway tour, first national tour. I've done ship contracts and a bunch of regional theater, and then I've done some operas and stuff like that. But yeah, this is my first Broadway tour.
And you guys are still kind of fresh into it, just opened a couple weeks ago. Is that right?
Yeah, it opened in Paducah - well, it was a preview, just one performance. And then we opened officially in Nashville. And now we're in Dayton.
So tell me about the show and the look and feel of it.
Well, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND takes place after a storm. So when the people come into the theater they see the stage is totally devastated from a storm that probably happened, like, last night. And the totem pole, which used to be a telephone pole, is totally knocked down in the middle of the stage. And on this totem pole - it's so cool, it's like pictures of all of our lost ones, you know? So they all travel with us throughout the whole tour, which is amazing. Like my grandmother is one of the people that's on the totem pole.
So your actual personal lost loved ones?
Yeah. It's so cool. And it takes a little bit to get used to. My grandmother is who really influenced me to continue a career in the arts. She made me drop out of law school to continue the arts, you know?
Oh my gosh, this whole idea just gives me chills. What a beautiful idea!
Yeah, it's amazing. So we pay homage to the totem pole as soon as we come out on stage in the pre-show. We're all trying to clean up the stage and clean up the things on the stage to get ready for the actual show. So it's about a girl who takes a road that not many people would usually take - at least not for a girl from her type of background. So her parents tried to tell her she should't do it because "we're not like this, and it's unsafe for you," but she goes ahead and she does it. And so the gods, we kind of help her along this journey, you know, and kind of inform her in the way that we think that she should go. And I don't want to give too much of it away, but that is what the show is about. And we're working with real elements. Like I'm the God of water, Agwe, so I have a pool - I'm in a pool for the majority of the show, splashing around. And because of the onstage seating, some of the people get wet, because I'm not shy about splashing around the lake. Then we also have sand and fire - like real fire in the torches. So many things are going on, but all of the elements work together to better tell the story, you know? I love it.
That sounds amazing.
I've never done a role that was as technically demanding as this one, not even in opera, or even INTO THE WOODS, when I played the wolf. The only bad thing about that was that they had to peel me out of this wolf costume because it was so tight. Three women had to peel me, it was crazy. But with this one I practically have no clothes on onstage except for shorts. And then I put on my beard and things when I become a full god. So I'm always working out, I'm always trying to eat the right things, just so that I can appear aesthetically pleasing to the eye. (laughs)
So it sounds like you have a kind of transformation during the show.
Yes we do. In the beginning we dance when they're announcing the gods. I have this blue paint I splash on my face and I become Agwe then, I'm blessed as Agwe. And then after the "One Small Girl" song, we become gods with the full regalia. Asaka has her full dress on with her turban and her flowers, and I have my beard and all of the paint - I get painted more on my back and more on my arms. It's a wonderful transformation. And then you feel like you can't help but bring more to the role. Because hey, you know, I'm a god. So what does that mean? For me? It means I'm commanding the elements. It means I'm grounded. It means that because I'm in charge of leading this girl on this journey, I have to take charge of the journey or be part of the gods' decision in leading her down the path we think is right for her. So, yes, it's amazing.
I love all that work you've obviously done to create this character. So tell me about some of the songs and some of the highlights for you.
One of the people that arranged the storyteller vocals is AnnMarie Milazzo. And what she did in making this revival of the score is made us all seem like we were part of nature. She worked with us a lot when we were rehearsing to help us make the background sounds, like birds or drum sounds. In the development of this new score, she's making us the background noises, like noises that you would hear if the sun was coming up, what the birds would say or what some of the animals would say, you know what I'm saying? And it was like, so amazing. And the way that she commanded us was so magical and so special. Because I come from a world of, "Hey, we go to measure two and we sound like this." But with her, it was more organic, more from a place of spirituality. Like just learning how to sound like a small bird, you know, or a big bird, or something like a drum or a tom tom or a djembe. So when I'm thinking rain, the people playing the storytellers are exemplifying rain, making sounds like raindrops as well as animals and sounds of the community and sounds of this village that are getting ready for rain or hiding from the rain. You get all of those elements in that one song. And I think that's so amazing.
It sounds like they really incorporate a feel of nature to the show, an elemental feel.
Most definitely. Nature is so important. And if you go outside now and you're listening to nature, you would hear the same things that they're trying to make us do in this score - like the chirping of birds, or wind, or the breezes of the trees. We play the bullfrog. We play mosquitoes. It's amazing, you know, and we're on stage all of the time, for 90 minutes. And the set doesn't change, but we change the atmosphere of the set, you know, collectively, whether we are a breeze or whether we are frogs or whether we're trying to set up night time or whatever. We use theatre magic - you have lights and things like that - but as far as a drastic set change, everything happens right there in front of you.
Wow, it just sounds magical.
Yeah, it is magical. It's one of the most magical things that I've done. And it is so highly dependent on the actors to commit to the jobs that each one of us have, and each person does an amazing job, constantly performing. It's great.
Well, it sounds like just an amazing experience for you as well as the audience.
Oh, most definitely.
And it's done without intermission?
No intermission, just 90 minutes straight through and I'm telling you, because of how it runs there's no lag, you will be totally into it. There have been people that saw the show in Nashville that came to Dayton to see it. There have been people in Paducah that came to see it in Paducah, but then drove to Nashville to see it. It's crazy. It's a great show. It's amazing. Everyone needs to see this show - all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, all religious backgrounds, atheists, whatever. It's such an amazing show. And I'm so happy to be a part of it. Everyone needs to see this show.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND runs November 5 - 10 at the Peace Center in Greenville, SC. For tickets and additional information, contact the box office at 864.467.3000 or visit peacecenter.org.
Photo credit: © Joan Marcus, 2017