Content Warnings: Discussion of mental illness including depression and implied suicidal ideation
Full warning: this post is gonna get hella deep.
Something that I love about theatre is that it feels so intensely intimate. There’s something about sharing the room with people who are all experiencing what you are and also sharing the air with the people on the stage that makes seeing a show so, so special. There’s a kind of energy that gets charged in the room. At least once during every show that I really love, I get totally lost in the show and it feels real, like it’s really happening, and in a way, it is.
Theatre is also one of the places I turn to in order to work out my emotions. There’s something comforting about the way stories are told on stage. I trust it. When I see the right show at the right time, it ends up being transformative. I started going to see Broadway shows regularly when I was fifteen and especially in the past five years. I’m pretty sure that if you cut open my heart, the show tunes that I love most would flow out like a Pandora’s box, with just as much hope at the bottom.
Theatre resonates with my heart, whether I’m sad, angry or happy. It’s always there for me. I’m always able to find the perfect song that describes how I’m feeling. I also pull a lot of strength from theatre. If I have my earphones in, I’m more than likely listening to a show.
This past week, I went to see Once on this Island with one of my best friends. I had seen it shortly after it opened in January with another one of my best friends, but didn’t know much about the show before I saw it. I was so impressed and amazed with the set and the cast and the music, though, and the power of the story, that I promised myself I would go back and see it again.
A beautiful, smart musical about love, family and Caribbean racial politics (specifically in the French Antilles), Once on this Island tells the story of Ti Moune, a girl who is orphaned after a terrible storm, saved by the gods and raised by a peasant family. The gods, after hearing Ti Moune desire for some kind of purpose, arrange for her to fall in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, one of the lighter skinned grands hommes that lives on a different part of the island. Chaos ensues, as it does in any great love story, and the musical leaves off on a note that shows the worlds of the island being somewhat reunited.
The entire musical is framed as being a tale told to a small girl frightened during a bad storm and is about the power of love and stories. It’s about learning your history. It’s about using the power of storytelling to overcome adversity. It’s about the all-consuming power of love. It’s wonderful, and if you live near New York City you should definitely try to see it at Circle in the Square right now (plus the cast is just phenomenal). It’s done in the round and Circle in the Square is just such a special venue, especially for a story like this.
My post won’t touch upon the racial and class politics or the French Caribbean culture represented in the musical, though. It’s not my lane to talk about those elements of the show anyway in a post, although I appreciate the way that the culture is celebrated in the show and how deeply attuned to history.
Instead, I’m going to talk about how I connected personally to Ti Moune’s intense devotion and love in the play, and how it made me reflect on issues I’ve been thinking about lately in my own life. This show has taught me about the value and importance of self-love, and the consequences of ignoring its importance.
I am a very intensely emotional person. I also have a bad habit of putting other people’s feelings ahead of my own. I am not the kind of person that instinctively puts on her own oxygen mask first in a time of crisis. My instinct is to make sure everyone around me is okay first. All I want to do is take care of other people, even if I get hurt in the process. I used to think that was love. I’m starting to learn it’s foolishness. Once on this Island helped me see that, but from the safety of a cushioned theatre seat and with the comfort that other people around me were just as emotional (the woman sitting behind me and I were sniffling together and it was comforting).
Anyway, let’s take a step back. On Monday, I was talking to my friend while we were walking to a bookstore. Venting, actually, about mental health stuff, because I’d been having a hard weekend. I talk and write things out to think. At one point I insisted that I knew I hurt myself in an effort to save my friends from the emotional shrapnel that I send flying during my worst moments. And my friend snapped back at me, that no, I didn’t know that. It was quick, but it was like someone pinched me hard enough to wake me up.
Because oh shit. He was right. So right. But I always do such a good job of masking my insecurities. It was the first time someone I really love ever saw past that and reprimanded me for being foolish. I needed that.
Fast forward a few hours and I’m watching Once on this Island. The whole show, because it’s just so sad, makes me so emotional. It didn’t hit me the first time, but it sure as hell did the second time. I’m a person who believes in love and fate. I’m a hopeless romantic. But this time watching the show was different. During “Forever Yours,” a song in which Ti Moune takes care of Daniel obsessively after he’s in a bad car accident, I started to feel tears form in my eyes. Ti Moune and I, as people, are very different of course. But I connected to the way she devoted every ounce of her energy to take care of Daniel. It felt like I was watching myself on the stage, sacrificing my own strength and energy for someone else. What theatre does is it allows me the distance to understand my own feelings and work through those emotions. Catharsis.
As the musical went on, the knot that had formed in my stomach tied tighter and tighter and tighter throughout the show. When Ti Moune leaves her loving family to chase love. When she takes care of Daniel. When she is ultimately forsaken by the grands hommes and they kick dirt at her. I felt the tears build and build and build until “When We Are Wed” started and that’s when I just lost it.
It’s the moment when Ti Moune’s selfless love and displays of emotion come back to bite her.
As a survivor of sexual violence, too, I felt all the shame and guilt of having the rug pulled out from under me. I felt every little bit of the way that loving someone so strongly and so deeply, putting other people’s needs ahead of your own, can destroy every fiber of your sanity. I felt like that emotional through-line of the show was a caution to me, that if I kept on the path I was going on, I would eventually emotionally exhaust myself and eventually I would go too far and I would never recover.
So I started crying even harder during “A Part of Us.” Tears were streaming down my face and I couldn’t make them stop. It was a mix of sadness and joy and admiration at the beauty of the show’s end. Every time I tried to wipe away my tears, more came.
It was the moment I realized I need to change my life. I need to take care of myself. I need to put myself first. Because while it’s beautiful how Ti Moune sacrifices herself and ultimately returns to the gods, I want more than that. And I knew watching this scene that I had a choice. I could continue to be self-destructively selfless and end up like her, as a story, as a tragic, cautionary fairy tale. Ti Moune will never get to experience real, validating love. She will never get to see her loving family again. She will never walk among the trees or in the surf again. She sacrifices herself for love and that’s the end. She lives on in a way, but her light still goes out.
Or I could stop. I could slow down and look around me and breathe. I could put my oxygen mask on now because I need it. Because if I kept going the way I had been, I knew I was going to burn out. I could feel it. And I could feel myself starting to prepare to say my goodbyes, even if I wasn’t fully aware of what I was doing.
I want to live. I want to be here for a long time. I want to make so many memories with friends. I want to love others deeply, but I want to love myself too. I’m always going to hold Once on this Island close to my heart now, because seeing it might have saved my life, even in just a little way. It’s so beautiful, so hopeful and so magical. That’s the power of theatre.
When I hear the music, I will always now remember the power of love, but also the importance of knowing to balance a love of others with a love of self. Self-love is more important than anything else. I’m going to fight my mental illness head on this year. I’m going to get help. I’m going to deal with my shit. And love will win, but it won’t destroy me, because I’ll have self-love on my side.
That is why I tell the story.