Pictured: Matthew A. King in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND | J. Robert Schraeder/Spinning Tree Theatre
In this 3-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past “Inside” articles click here.
By Matthew A. King
It’s often difficult for me to describe in words my process as an actor. I’m often cerebral first then my emotional layer finds its way. However, in rare cases, such as this one, I was able to connect emotionally with a character first. I have always wanted to be apart of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND after seeing it years ago at a community theatre. Yet, I had no idea how much of an emotional weight it was to be a part of a show with such heavy themes focused on class and color. As an audience member I fell in love with the story, however, as an actor, it exposed a lot of uncomfortable messages I have dealt with in society.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND follows the story of Caribbean islanders who were under the oppression of the French. As the French colonized, they often had
offspring with the peasants who served them, thus producing mixed-race children. Fast-forward to post-revolution, the island is now free of French oppression but is still divided amongst those with darker skin and the mixed-race who retain French ways and are inherently deemed “high-born.”
Having been asked to play Daniel, one of the mixed-race islanders, I hadn’t really thought about how he would relate to me as a person, which is something I try and search for within every character I play. I probe the question, what is this character’s truth? What truths have I lived that may tell their story more authentically and furthermore, allow me to connect with them as an actor. Little did I know, I would identify with him and the story more than ever.
There’s a scene in the show which tells the back-story of Daniel, his history and how he came into his adulthood, and I remember being in rehearsal for the first time when we staged the song “Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” which was omitted in the production I had seen years ago, and my eyes got watery and my heart became heavy.
Now, I personally am not of mixed race, however, I have been misconstrued for it practically all my life, and here is a character who is struggling with his identity after being cursed by his French father who essentially exclaimed that he will never belong in either world completely. Daniel has a heart for this peasant girl who is of darker skin and he feels love for her, he feels accepted and cares for her, as she does him, yet he is steadily reminded of his duties and only one part of his identity on his “side” of the island.
It was a struggle, to be frank, and as I tried to find my connection to the character, little did I know how identifiable his life was to mine. Never quite feeling as if I belonged to a group of black people or to a group of white people. Never quite feeling complete in either, but constantly searching for a way to be accepted by one or both. Now, I guarantee any Black person who was raised in suburbia most of their life, like myself, has said, “I always felt too “white” for my “Black” friends and too “Black” for my “White” friends.” Well, such is even truer as a Black person of lighter complexion. Where exactly do I fit in?
This was my journey and the uncomfortable hard place I had to slide myself into as an actor. Although I am secure in who I am today, I am thankful for being able to tell his story, his struggle and to hopefully spark the audience’s understanding — that our identity is never in the hands of someone else. We forge that path and within that path are freer to choose whom we identify most with, whom we choose to call family and whom we choose to love. We don’t always feel as if we have that choice, as Daniel sometimes shows, however, the beauty of this show is that it creates conversation and illustrates how free one would feel when he or she listens to their own heart despite where they come from or the complexion of their skin. Layered with multiple themes, we as a cast gather nightly and prepare our hearts in hope that, as audiences sit and join this story, they find a theme that settles in their soul as much as the ones we relate to settle in ours.
Matthew A. King (Daniel) Spinning Tree: West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Violet, Ain’t Misbehavin’. Matthew is thrilled to be back in Kansas City to be a part of this wonderful company. He would like to thank his incredibly supportive parents and friends for all their love. Credits include EGADS! Theatre: Godspell; Musical Theater Heritage: South Pacific; The Coterie: Once Upon A Mattress; The Living Room: The Death of Cupid; Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre: Ragtime, The King & I; Western Playhouse: Mother Divine; Featured Singer with Royal Caribbean International. BFA, Roosevelt Conservatory Chicago. Matthew is a proud AEA member. www.matthewaking.com