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Once On This Island’s child actors bring audiences together on tour

MiMi Crossland as Little Girl, Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune and the Company of the North American Tour of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Photo by Joan Marcus.


written by Elysa Gardner on behalf of Once on This Island

2017’s Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Once on This Island entertained and inspired audience members of all ages with its tale of adventure and romance, kindness and joy. Among them was nine-year-old Mariama Diop, whose mom entered a lottery and scored seats so close to the stage that Mari, as she calls herself, was so close to the action that she was able to “reach out and touch the stage.”

Now Mari and eight-year-old MiMi Crossland are getting even closer to the action: The precociously gifted young performers are alternating the role of the Little Girl in this Island’s first national tour. The part marks Mari’s first professional production and MiMi’s national tour debut, and it’s taking them from their homes in New York City (Mari) and Upstate New York (MiMi) to cities across the country, accompanied by their mothers and a tutor, Carolyn Dunning.

The character shared by the girls serves an important function in the beloved musical, in which we are told the story of Ti Moune, an orphan saved by the gods from a hurricane to embark on another perilous journey as a young woman. “In the beginning, the story is being told to the Little Girl, and then we become Ti Moune when she’s young—we become part of the story,” MiMi explains. “One of the things we really have to do in the play is listen and act like we’re hearing this story for the first time. Our character is really interested in the story, but it’s hard work.”

The tutor, “Ms. Carolyn,” helps MiMi and Mari both with their responsibilities within the show and in juggling those with schoolwork. “She teaches us that focus is important, and when we’re having trouble we can ask her questions and think about how the character feels,” says Mari. MiMi admits, “It’s been busy, trying to balance school and practice at the same time, but it’s all been worth it, because the show is amazing.”

MiMi adds, “I feel like Ms. Carolyn’s teaching us stuff that maybe we wouldn’t have learned in our other schools, because we get one-on- one time with her, so we can learn more.” Mari’s mom, Laura Sorenson, has been impressed by the tutoring program: “They coordinate everything with the school, to make it easy for us. They speak with Mari’s teachers, make sure she gets chess time, French time, her assignments. They modify a little bit; you can’t do a science experiment on the road, because you don’t have a lab, but they find ways to make it work. (Carolyn) works very hard to ensure that when the girls go back to school, they’re where they need to be.”

Carolyn also teaches the girls about the cities they’re visiting in advance, says Mari, “so that when we were rehearsing in New York, we’d learn about Paducah (in Kentucky) and what it was like.” Once on location, the tutor takes the girls on field trips, and encourages good behavior through a star system. “When you get to 50 stars you earn a little treat,” Mari says. “At 100 stars, you might get cupcakes, or pumpkin-carving messages on Halloween week. It’s amazing. And she doesn’t take away stars, because she wants to encourage us, and that really boosts up our confidence.”

MiMi’s mom, Christine Casareale, notes, “This is MiMi’s first job, and I think the amount of work that is involved is more than most people see until well into their adulthood. Even though everyone is really great to them, they’re still expected to perform and act in a mature way.”

Mari and MiMi have also been inspired by Island’s celebration of racial and cultural diversity—and what it’s meant to the young fans who come to greet them at the stage door. “One of the little girls I met played Ti Moune in her school play,” says Mari. “She has my skin color, maybe a little darker, and she was inspired to make her own show, because she wants to be an actor when she grows up. And I want to support her and inspire her, and all the other girls and boys who are looking for support.”

Greeting audience members and signing autographs has also provided a “great opportunity to meet new people,” says Mari. “In Dayton, Ohio, there were two girls, one 11 and one 8, who saw the show and wanted to be friends with me,” Mari recalls. “We had several play dates and hung out together, and now one of them is my friend on one of the games I play.”

For MiMi, just observing a crowd during a performance can be just as rewarding. “You see people in the audience smiling, and you can tell they love it,” she says. “Because there are people who don’t get to see shows like this on Broadway, so it’s amazing that we get to travel all over and people get to see these shows that they wouldn’t have seen.”

And both girls feel that their show appeals to a particularly wide audience. Once on This Island “can help bring families together,” says Mari, “because it makes people who see it realize how lucky they are to have their families with them.” It’s served that very purpose, in fact, for Mari herself: “Before the show, my mom and I were great friends, best friends—but now I feel like we’re even closer. It’s amazing and inspiring.”

MiMi agrees. “I’m seeing families in the audience, and it brings them closer,” she says. “And that’s great.”