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Sand, Wind and Rain: All on Stage in Once on This Island at TUTS

The Company of the North American Tour of Once On This Island.
The Company of the North American Tour of Once On This Island.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Jahmaul Bakare has never played a god before, never been on a national Broadway Tour before for that matter either but he's now doing both with Once On This Island, winner of the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

Bakare plays Agwe, the god of water, in this tale within a tale of people living on an island, separated by the color of their skin until a way is found to bring them together, thanks to Ti Moune, a peasant girl who falls in love with a young man from the upper class.

The story begins with a storm, which sets up the opportunity for storytellers to calm the fears of a young scared girl by telling her about Ti  Moune and the journey she went on to bring peace between the dark-skinned peasants living on one side of the island and the lighter-skinned descendants of French planters and their slaves on the other side of this island in the Antilles.

Sacrifices are made as the gods — much like the Greek and Roman gods — vie with each other to prove which is more powerful: love or death.

One of the things that Bakare says he especially likes about the plot is that the community picks its gods. There are three other gods besides himself: Erzulie, goddess of Love; Asaka, Mother of the Earth; and Papa Ge, the demon of Death.

"The God of water is the epitome of strength," Bakare says. "In starting this journey,  he starts Ti Moune's journey with wanting to be with this boy she so loves."

Bakare had been living in Los Angeles but moved back to New York at the urging of his agent who wanted to get him on Broadway. A few auditions later and they got word that the producers would like to see him try out for the role of Agwe in the national tour. And he got the part.

He grew up in Chicago and got involved in theater and musicals beginning when he was only 8 years old. He was in an acting company that was privately owned and went to inner city schools. "They got black and brown kids to go to a school on Saturday where we would come up with scripts or make musicals and then we would perform them. We would do a workshop in the summertime. We would do a rehearsal in the fall and we would put the show on in the spring."

From there he went to Moorehouse College in voice and music (where he was part of the Moorehouse College Glee Club and part of a quartet) and went on to get his master's in music and fine arts from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. At that point he moved to New York for the first time. He sings in his church choir at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Also an opera singer, Bakare says he enjoys what he feels are the freedoms of theater, be they plays or musicals. "Musical theater is so accessible. I am able to be myself and I'm able to just be free on stage.The same on straight plays."

He's always been tall. "People used to make fun of me. I would kind of scrunch down." But ever since he started doing musical theater and the arts, it's allowed him to relax and be more open, he says. And certainly his size — he's 6'4" — is casting gold for a god.

The musical is performed under the careful eye of choreographers who incorporate West African, Haitian, Caribbean dance influences into the performances, Bakare says.

His role as god of water isn't just a title. "There are tons of elements in the show. We have sand. We have water, cause I'm in the water a lot. We have rain. It's like a pool on stage and I come out of the pool. I make it rain on stage. There‘s wind, there's fog."

"There’s also seating on stage and those always go really, really hot. So I think everyone will enjoy it. It’s such a great show."

Performances are scheduled for February 18 through March 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $40-$129.

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