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Courtnee Carter, UNC School Of The Arts Alum, Stars In 'Once On This Island'

Courtnee Carter
Joan Marcus
Kyle Ramar Freeman as Asaka and Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune in "Once On This Island."

The touring production of "Once On This Island" opened Tuesday night at the Belk Theater and runs through Nov. 17. The show opened on Broadway in 1990 and closed after a year, but it was revived in 2017 and won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

"Once On This Island" revolves around Ti Moune, a determined young peasant girl who's trying to find herself and true love. She is played by Courtnee Carter, who was also in the Broadway cast. Carter, a 2016 graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, says there are various themes in the play that will connect with the audience.

Courtnee Carter: "Once On This Island" is a beautiful love story. It's about hope, forgiveness. It's about building a community and bringing people together. Really, storytelling at its finest. I'm really excited to bring it to Charlotte. I have people from UNCSA that are coming to see it and it's really, really, really exciting.

Gwendolyn Glenn: In the Broadway production, what did you play? Were you understudy, lead?

Carter: I understudied Ti Moune, Andrea and a couple other of the ensemble women parts. It was my Broadway debut. And now I'm here playing the lead in it. It's just really a dream come true.

Glenn: Did you get to star many nights out of that understudy role when it was on Broadway?

Carter: I did, actually. I went on quite a few times, which was nice because my family got to see me when the lead went on vacation. My family came up and saw me and just made me fall in love with the show even more every time that I got to be on the sand. By the way, there is sand. There's water, there's fire, and there are the actual elements of this island. And it's really, really breathtaking. 

Glenn: Great. And your character, tell us about your character?

Carter: Ti Moune is a girl who is saved in a hurricane and she goes on this journey to find her true love. And she's guided by these guides and she doesn't take no for an answer. She knows that this is her destiny to save this man and fall in love with him and get married and have kids. And she goes on this beautiful journey and brings these two different worlds together. It’s a story about never giving up hope and not taking no for an answer. I see a lot of her in me with her drive and being an actress and not taking no for an answer. So it's a really, really exciting role to play.

Glenn: And also in the play, sometimes she doesn't take no from her parents. And that is something sometimes that those who are aspiring actors also don't take no from their parents who want them to take more secure careers. Would you agree?

Courtnee Carter
Credit Joan Marcus
MiMi Crossland as Little Girl and Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune in Once On This Island.

Carter: Absolutely. Oh, my gosh. Yes. I mean, I get asked till today on a daily basis: "What is my backup plan?" This is what I was put on this earth to do, and nothing else makes me happier. And so that's what Ti Moune does. She's like, "No. Why am I here? This is my purpose. I'm going to follow it to the end. I don't care what anyone says." And I think that's what you have to do as an actor or anything that you're passionate about. I don't feel like I'm working. I feel like I'm going on stage and just playing with my friends. It's such a blessing and such a wonderful thing.

Glenn: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?

Carter: Well, see I've been going to art school all my life. So I think when I was 5, I did my first show. This is in elementary school. And I just lit up the stage. I just knew I was ... I didn't know what it was, but I knew I loved being on stage and telling stories and playing around. And I didn't know specifically that I wanted to go into theater, but I knew the arts. I mean, I loved to sing. I loved to dance. And I played piano. So I was just always involved with it. And my grandmother was a jazz singer, and she used to take me to concerts and to see musical theater. She took me to see "The Lion King" and "Wicked" and all these different shows. And that's when I really, really fell in love with it.

Glenn: Being from Jacksonville, Florida, how did you choose to attend UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem?

Carter: So I went to an arts high school, but I loved Rebecca Naomi Jones. Rebecca Naomi Jones went to University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I went and visited the campus. It was a smaller school. They focused more on the acting and mask movement, and singing and dancing classes and it was just an art school. So I felt like I wouldn't get swallowed up. And after interviewing with the teachers and just being on the campus, that's when I knew. And North Carolina is absolutely beautiful and I just loved it. 

Glenn: And where do you see yourself going from here? 

Carter: Yeah, my dream is to be an original lead in a Broadway show. Specifically, I want to play Nala on Broadway. That is in "The Lion King." And that is like my dream role.

Glenn: I love that Broadway show. One of my favorites.

Carter: Oh, my God. Mine, too. It's so beautiful. More TV, more film. And I'm really excited about it. 

Glenn: And, as for the play itself, what do you think audiences will take away from this?

Carter: I'm hoping that audiences will take away the message of hope and building each other up. And it's so devastating the hurricanes that we've been having lately. And just like a sense of awareness of the reality of what is happening. I hope that Ti Moune’s story can inspire people to forgive. And I hope that spreads through generations and communities, especially children. I think children are going to be the ones that are going to change our future. And so I'm hoping that this story really teaches them not to hate and to love and forgive and follow your dreams, of course. That's most important.

Glenn: Well, thank you so much for talking with us today for us.

Carter: Thank you for having me.

Glenn: Courtney Carter stars as Ti Moune in the production of "Once On This Island" at the Belk Theater through the 17th.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.