For director Devron Young, Montgomery College’s production of “Once on This Island,” opening Wednesday at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, is what he calls “a full-circle moment.”
Young first became aware of the one-act musical 20 years ago during the play’s Broadway touring production. The “Once on This Island” soundtrack was the first CD Young ever owned. And the show was the last one Young performed in as a theater student at the University of Maryland in 1997.
Only 90 minutes in length, “Once On This Island” is based on “My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl,” a 1985 novel written by Rosa Guy. The play also includes elements from “Romeo and Juliet” as well as Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
It’s the story of Timoune (Rohey Colley and Awa Sal-Secka), an orphan and a peasant girl living on one side of the Island — believed to be modern day Haiti — who falls in love with Daniel (Jonathan Miot), a wealthy boy from the other side of the island. Their differing social classes make for a forbidden love affair.
“The themes are universal,” Young said. “(These) themes are timeless. They speak to love, devotion, tradition ... When I first started with the show 20 years ago, I got some of the themes but the other themes of devotion ... what it really means to invest in a community, to really share what we’ve learned with the younger generation, at that point in my life, I really didn’t care about that. Now it means so much more to me.”
While the play’s themes have developed deeper meaning over time, the music has always been special to Young.
“(We) leave the audience with these wonderful songs,” Young said. “Songs that make them want to cry, make them want to get up and dance.”
The music also is what caught the attention of Sal-Secka, a first-year theater student at Montgomery College who plays Timoune in her later years.
Sal-Secka said she doesn’t think there has been a day since she auditioned for the role that she hasn’t listened to the show’s soundtrack.
“The moment I heard ‘Mamma will Provide,’ I was hooked,” Sal-Secka said. “When I was listening to the music, there were a lot of things I could connect to, just little things, mannerisms or ways of showing respect.”
Sal-Secka is a first-generation Gambian. Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, she moved to Gaithersburg in 2006.
“(There) are similarities between the people in Timoune’s world and mine,” Sal-Secka said. “I could connect to it in that way because I could imagine myself doing the same things in my world.”
Sal-Secka wasn’t the only one who found common ground with her character. Although for her co-star Miot, it was almost a missed connection.
Wanting to finish his associate’s degree this year, Miot did not intend to audition for Montgomery College’s musical this semester.
“It was a really, really last minute thing,” said Miot. “A friend of mine convinced me to audition, and I didn’t necessarily want to because I was taking a lot more classes...”
But once he read the script, Miot said he realized he was pretty much the perfect fit for the part.
“I oddly fit the description of Daniel,” said Miot. “I am mixed Haitian. I was born there. My grandfather worked for the U.N., so we were more upper-class Haitians ... I relate extremely well. It’s a bit uncanny.”
This time around, Young said he is getting a different kind of satisfaction out of “Once on this Island.” Now a professional actor and director in the area, he said it’s exciting to pass his experiences on to the next generation of actors — much like the villagers do in the play.
Young directed “Rent” last year at the University of Maryland and said he hopes to return to direct future productions.
“We have a shared experience that you can’t really teach and tell,” Young said. “Especially going back to the University of Maryland — the classes, the professors, just the fact that the kids lived on campus where I lived.”