Albany High School’s theater ensemble recently performed Once On This Island, a dark musical set in the French Caribbean Antilles. The play examines race, class, and gender divisions between the island’s white French upper classes and its black peasants. It tells the story about Ti Moune, a spirited peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel, a white man of mixed-race ancestry who lives in the gated hotels of the white French islanders. After saving his life and nursing him back to health, Ti Moune goes in search of Daniel when his people take him back from her village to their side of the island. Daniel has an affair with her, then destroys her with the news that he is marrying a white French woman, in accordance with the rigid racial and class mores of their time. Devastated, Ti Moune drowns herself in the sea, but Asaka the earth goddess transforms her into a tree of love which brings all the people of the island together.
The student ensemble beautifully dramatized the play’s exploration of the anguished struggle of love to transcend hatred. Discussion of the play throughout the community urged deeper awareness of the destructive effects of white, higher class male privilege upon poorer people, particularly but not exclusively women of color. It briefly became our community’s contribution to the urgent and disturbing conversations about race, class and gender taking place in America.
Yet each time I sat through a performance, I also found myself disturbed by the play’s largely ignored religious subtext. Ti Moune is not only a victim of bigotry, she is also a hapless casualty of divine cruelty. She meets Daniel because the gods, when she prays to them to find romance, make the lovers’ paths cross in order to settle an argument between them and Papa Ge, the god of death. They want to know if Ti Moune’s love for Daniel is strong enough to transcend race and class, and even to conquer death. The other gods wager yes, but Papa Ge decides to put Ti Moune to the ultimate test. Would she die for this privileged man-boy who uses her, then throws her away?
The role of gods and goddesses such as these in popular literature is rooted in ancient stories about divine capriciousness. The gods create sunshine one moment, devastating storms the next, and they have no problem using human beings in their experiments. Consider that even our Western Bible’s ethical monotheism is touched by some of this cavalier cruelty. The opening chapters of the biblical Book of Job relate the folk tale about this thoroughly righteous man with a very comfortable life who becomes a pawn in a contest between God and Satan, his heavenly prosecutor. They make Job suffer horribly in order to see if he will remain righteous despite his suffering and loss.
One reading of literature and culture might dismiss these gods and goddesses as secondary props that merely add mythological color to this play. Its setting is one of traditional islander culture and superstition, yet its main theme is human, not divine, evil. However, I suggest that no complete analysis of race, class and gender can ignore religion. We can view ideas about God as mature responses to a transcendent reality or as child-like projections of people’s needs and desires onto the universe. However we view them, images of God continue to influence, reflect and reinforce how societies think about race, class, and gender. We are created in God’s image and God often reflects who we are and what we do. God and religion are potent weapons for justifying oppression, but they can be just as potent in the struggle for liberation. As the battle lines between these two uses of religion are drawn ever more jaggedly in this century, we would do well to teach our students to think critically about how they play out on the human stage.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.
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