Two newly formed organizations, aiming to make art diverse and accessible in the Ozarks, are collaborating on their first project: a musical production.
Small Umbrella Theatre Company and Black Arts Alliance Southwest Missouri open “Once on This Island” Friday, May 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilhoit Theatre, located on Drury University’s campus at 900 N. Benton Ave. The production runs through Saturday, May 28.
“Once on This Island” is a one-act stage musical written by Lynn Ahrens, with music by Stephen Flaherty. The story takes place in the French Antilles, where a young girl uses the power of love to bring others together. In 2018, the musical won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The original Broadway production ran from 1990-1991, and it was revived in 2017.
The 90-minute production is the first collaboration between Small Umbrella Theatre and the Black Arts Alliance.
Small Umbrella Theatre was founded in April 2021 by Springfield natives Joe and Paige Rogers.
“We were founded with three main principles,” Paige Rogers said. “The first is to prioritize women and underrepresented folks in our storytelling and roles on and off stage. The second is that we believe theater should be accessible. All of our tickets follow a pay-what-you-will model. And the third is that we pay all artists involved.”
A pay-what-you-will model allows folks to watch local productions at no cost. However, donations are what allow Small Umbrella to host these accessible productions and pay their crew.
Founded during the wake of summer 2020, The Black Arts Alliance aims to “pursue talent, offer resources and welcome opportunities” for people of color in Springfield. The organization was founded by Keegan Winfield, Imari Stout and Nki Calloway, women who knew each other through their involvement in Springfield’s theater community.
“(During summer 2020), we were kind of reflecting on what it was like for us whenever we were growing up in (the theater) environment and how difficult it was,” Winfield said. “We were seeing so many people, at that time, theaters especially, coming out and saying, ‘We are pledging to do better. We’re dedicating ourselves to be more inclusive and diverse.’
“We (the three founders) felt like there should be an organization (in Springfield) that’s Black led, specifically, that would not only be there to create opportunities within the community, but to also hold the community accountable to what they said they were going to do.”
Collaborative discussion began last summer, after Small Umbrella Theatre wrapped their first show, “Little Women.”
“(Paige) brought this opportunity to Imari and said, ‘Hey, Small Umbrella is thinking of doing Once on This Island and we would really like to do it in a culturally-appropriate manner,'” Winfield said. “I’ve seen the show done in many different ways before, and (Small Umbrella) really wanted to prioritize having a BIPOC cast. And that was something we feel really passionate about as well.”
It didn’t take long after the initial reaching out that preparations began. The first step: attaining a cast.
“With a lot of musicals that you do, you have huge casting calls, but when you’re putting on a predominantly-Black production in southwest Missouri, you’re not going to have that,” Stout said. “Our population here is small.”
Despite this initial difficulty, Stout said the production has “one of the most amazing casts” she’s ever worked with.
The 14-member cast ranges from new to seasoned performers.
“Our youngest actress is 10 years old,” Calloway said. “Everyone in the cast is a person of color, and it’s really fantastic to … watch kids grow up in an environment where that is seen as the norm, rather than the exception.”
The story of “Once on This Island” is one everyone can relate to, Winfield said. She encouraged folks to come out to enjoy a production about love and life, while supporting two local arts organizations.
“This collaboration and a show that looks like this has not been done before (in Springfield),” Stout said. “The closest thing I could relate it to is when Springfield Little Theatre did ‘The Wiz’ in 1997 and they had a Black-led cast. But I’ve never seen a fully Black and POC cast put on a stage between (organizations) that have the values of Small Umbrella and Black Arts Alliance. It is a historical moment for this community.”
In addition to the production, the Black Arts Alliance is hosting a small art gallery from POC artists in the Wilhoit Theatre lobby that will be available for viewing before and after each show.
Tickets for “Once on This Island” can be obtained online, at showtix4u.com/event-details/60784, or at the event. A $5 minimum donation is required if selected online.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Small Umbrella Theatre, Black Arts Alliance open ‘Once on This Island’