by Alessia Salimbene
"Broadway was NOT on my radar. But this show found me. And so here I am, on Broadway - a burgeoning sociologist, actor, and musician telling a story of colonization, colorism, and class. Sounds about right to me.” A PhD candidate, a singer, an actor, Cassondra James.
The show FOUND her, which seems to be a universal feeling from audiences who experience this magical show.
When asked about debuting in a show like Once on This Island, she said, “I never dreamed of being on Broadway. Before this show, I always imagined teaching sociology to undergraduates, having a few research projects, and maybe, just maybe, releasing a solo album of my own music.”
Cassondra is a woman of many sides. Before smashing the Broadway (sand) stage eight times a week, she performed with Grammy Award-winning artists like Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys. But Broadway started inching closer to her. “While working at a local church, I met Jason Michael Webb. Through our friendship, which I have treasured for over a decade (time flies!), he introduced me to the musical theatre world.” This was just the beginning of her journey to Broadway.
“Jason recommended me for the first Once on this Island reading. I remember getting an email out of the blue one day with an appointment and, while I would like to say that I was excited, I was MORTIFIED! I had never auditioned for a Broadway show or reading before, and I was overwhelmed with self-doubt and fear. BUT, with the help of friends, I got myself together and went down to that audition. Two readings, a lab, and what seems like a million auditions later, I'm on Broadway.”
It’s amazing to see how life points you in a direction you thought you weren’t heading towards - Cassondra’s story is an example of just that.
On top of being a Broadway performer, Cassondra is a PhD candidate in sociology. Broadway and having your PhD shares some similarities I found out. James says, “One thing I'm learning in the PhD process is to be patient. A year ago I wouldn't have believed you if you told me I'd be writing a dissertation AND that I'd be in a Broadway show. My academic and artistic worlds are coming closer together. I just have to get out of their way.”
Once on This Island is a complex show, everyone walks away with at least one part stuck in their head that plays on replay. Cassondra says her favorite part is “The shadow play. Hands down.”
“Creating it was such a fun and beautiful examination of bodily capacity (i.e. how a body can become some thing or embody a concept). It's also an important moment to contextualize the issues of class, colorism, and colonization that are the backbone of TiMoune's story.”
Every show has some sort of message the writers want the audience to walk away with. Similarly, the actors have their own personal messages they hope to relay in their work. But sometimes the actors hope the audience walks away with something more. “I'm not invested in audience members walking away with a particular message, but I am invested in them walking away with more particular questions. There are so many complex political, historical, sociological, anthropological, and theological connections in this show.
In this day and age it’s important, especially to Cassondra, to have the audience walking away and asking questions. There’s a lot we can talk about as an audience when we go see a show. A strong show should have the audience walking out questioning things around them, questioning where we are right now in our society. James delves deeper saying, “I hope that people take the time to question these intersections, and that these questions lead to more honest and vulnerable conversations - especially around issues of race, class, gender, and representation.”
And just an inside look into a Broadway backstage, when asked in terms of backstage traditions the cast has, Cassondra said this wonderful tidbit, “... other than being late to your places call?”