How casting a wide net for diversity pays dividends for 'Once On This Island'

Casting and telling the story of ‘Once On This Island’

“Our goal in doing ‘Once On This Island’ is not just to portray the story — we want to tell it in the most accurate way possible. There are a lot of cultural problems that arise through this story, and we want to make sure these are heard — because these are recurring themes that also happen in everyday life.”Director Jarrod Scott and choreographer Natalie Hayes-Scott discuss the opportunity Phoenix Productions has to exemplify the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in community theatre. Auditions kick off this week in Red Bank, Asbury Park and New Brunswick. For more information, visit

Posted by Phoenix Productions, Inc. on Monday, November 28, 2022

Dominique Demko once thought about walking away from theater because she didn’t see herself represented on stage.

Today, the Long Branch resident is featured in a production that, with laser intent, is designed to prevent any other aspiring actors from facing that choice.

“Representation matters,” said Demko, who plays Erzulie in Phoenix Productions’ “Once On This Island,” playing this weekend at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank.

The show, from the team of Lynn Ahrens, a Neptune native, and Stephen Flaherty, depicts the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl, who falls in love with a wealthy boy from the other side of her island after rescuing him. The show explores love amidst racism and colorism.

The cast of Phoenix Productions' "Once on this Island."The cast of Phoenix Productions' "Once on this Island."

The cast of Phoenix Productions’ “Once on this Island.”

It’s inspiring, Demko says, to have people on stage who look like you do — and also who look other than you do.

“At one point, I didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing theater because I kept seeing shows that didn’t show me,” she said. “But as I keep coming back, I keep seeing myself represented. So I hope there might be kids or even adults in the audience too, who see themselves on stage and want to continue because of that.”

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The show features performers from across eight counties in New Jersey, and two actors from New York.

That’s no accident — rather the result of Phoenix wanting to “get it right,” particularly across the backdrop of a theater industry that, as a whole, has been facing a reckoning with regard to representation, inclusion and diversity.

“Our goal in doing ‘Once On This Island’ is not just to portray the story — we want to tell it in the most accurate way possible,” said choreographer Natalie Hayes-Scott of Long Branch in a recruitment video distributed by Phoenix and the Basie ahead of auditions, which took place across the state in an effort to bring in the largest pool possible of performers. “There are a lot of cultural problems that arise through this story, and we want to make sure these are heard — because these are recurring themes that also happen in everyday life.”

The Ti Mounes of Phoenix Productions' "Once on This Island."The Ti Mounes of Phoenix Productions' "Once on This Island."

The Ti Mounes of Phoenix Productions’ “Once on This Island.”

“In the attempt to increase the diversity, we cast it as largely as possible,” said director Jarrod Scott of Lakewood. That meant increasing what is usually a cast of 14 to 18 to a cast of 24 for the production.

The strategy worked. Turnout for auditions was robust, and brought new faces, new voices, new energy to the area. People who haven’t been here before, Scott said.

“This show brings so many peoples of color together, like of all varying colors. We have the Beauxhommes, the lighter, the peasants, which are the darker, you end up having ultimately three different races on the island, bringing peoples of color into a room and then walking into that room,” Scott said.

In addition to authentically casting the show, portraying it accurately was also of great importance to the creative team.

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“I think that representation in this is really being able to deep dive into the culture,” Hayes-Scott said. “It gives you an opportunity to really do some background research and learn the history about the culture where this story is being told. So you’re not only getting a story and getting that joy of being able to do theater and go through the storyline and develop the characters and all of that, but you also have these other elements that trigger the story to be told the way it is.”

One way Scott brought research to the stage is through dance’s traditional place in the culture represented.

“The special thing about choreography is it’s a special connection to the gods,” she said. “And that’s the same way that tribal dance and Haitian folkloric dance is used in the culture. It gets used to connect themselves to their deities and I stay true to that as far as for the show as well.”

And the cast couldn’t be more excited to be part of something special.

Young actors Suniyah Uter of East Windsor and Morgan Holly of Freehold share the role of Little Ti Moune.

“I like that you can like express yourself, you can add a little bit of yourself,” Suniyah said. Both girls say they have fallen in love with the show and have their eyes on adult roles in it for the future.

Vincent Alexander of Toms River stars as Daniel, the wealthy boy. He finds himself infusing his essence into the character — and vice versa.

“Daniel reminds me a lot of myself when I was younger. I think he’s very naive, but also that he’s very conflicted and also rebellious in a sense. I’m learning something after every single rehearsal from this character. Every night I take something away from him and I try to add something.”

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“The show is just so full of heart and soul and spirit,” Scott said. “And it has every single element ever: There’s horror, there’s comedy, there’s lightheartedness, there’s drama, there’s heartbreak, and I think everyone who’s going to come to the show is going to see or feel something that they’ve had happen to them in the past or maybe even currently. I think there’s so many messages that are portrayed in the show. And I think I personally think everyone’s going to walk away after seeing our show happier.”

GO: “Once On This Island” by Phoenix Productions. 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17 and Saturday, Feb. 18, 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19. Count Basie Center for the Arts, 99 Monmouth St., Red Bank. Visit for tickets and more information.

Ilana Keller is an award-winning journalist and lifelong New Jersey resident who loves Broadway and really bad puns. Reach out on Twitter: @ilanakeller;

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Phoenix Productions has authentic, diverse Once On This Island cast