Monday, March 23, 2009
Hapa in Hawaii: Kumu Kahua Theatre
So here's the moment of truth - which guy in the above photo is the CVT? Maybe the one in the middle, getting held back - he is pretty fiery.* Or maybe he's the one grimacing as he tries to hold the main guy back - the CVT tries to quash conflict. The guy in the way back is too old to be the CVT. But it could be any of the other ones. From what you can see, any of these guys could be hapa (mixed Asian/white).
So which one is me?
None of them, actually. This is a PR photo for a theatre production in Honolulu. However, what is important is that, knowing what you all know about my physical appearance - any of these guys could be me.
Let's say that again - any of the actors in the play pictured could be me, in terms of phenotype. How often have I ever been able to say that about any live performance art (music, theatre, sport, or otherwise)? Never.
Until last Saturday night.
To kick off my little "Hapa in Honolulu" series, I'm going to start at the end. My last night. And my best night.
To end my trip to Oahu, I decided I wanted to soak up the "blending-in" good feelings as heavily as possible. So I found this local theatre company, Kumu Kahua Theatre (KKT), that focuses on plays about Hawaiian people, written by Hawaiians, casting Hawaiian actors. From my research, it became clear that this was not going to be like every other theatre experience from my past - watching a mostly-white cast confront mostly-white issues for a mostly-white audience - and me standing out alone in the middle. No - this time, I might actually blend in.
And the second I walked up to the theatre to get my ticket, I knew I wasn't going to be disappointed. The audience was waiting outside for the doors to open, and I couldn't help but get giddy as I looked at them. It was a collection of Asian, mixed-Asian, mixed-other, and Hawaiian folks waiting. I slid in and nobody really noticed, while a couple random theatre-goers stood out like sore thumbs, visually - the handful of white folks.
It was a complete 180 on any other audience experience I've had in the States (except maybe in the Bay, but even there, white is the noticeable majority). I wanted to run around hugging people. I couldn't stop smiling. All these people kind of looked like me! Amazing.
So the doors opened up, and I walked in. One of the troupe members was showing people the way, and he could have passed for my brother - very clearly hapa. A bit Asian, a little white, maybe something else. I greeted him enthusiastically (and probably freaked him out a bit - I might have been a bit too eager about it all) and entered the theatre.
I was one of the first people in, so there were plenty of seating options and - for the first time - I actually chose to be in the front row. This matters because - in a small local theatre like this - being in the front row would put me almost literally in the play, in full view. Since I usually feel out of place at things like this, I generally choose to hide in the back, in the darkness.
But not this time. This time - I was going to be right up there, making sure I had the maximum amount of similar faces surrounding me.
The rest of the crowd rolled in, and two older ladies chose to sit in the seat next to me. There were other seats available - they could have sat with a "buffer" seat between us like what always happens anywhere else I've been (literally - always - if there is an option to not sit next to me, that's what happens).** The family on my left was an Asian family (Japanese). The ladies on my right, probably Hawaiian. I wasn't isolated in my private little space with buffer seats around me, obviously alone. No - this time, I had people choosing to sit next to me. And even better - a random observer would never have known I was alone, because it was just as plausible that I was with either of the groups sitting around me - as I could have passed as a relative of either group without anybody questioning it.
I was home. I was comfortable. It was like being back in the f-ing womb. I honestly don't know if I've ever felt like that before. I was part of the audience on a level that I had never experienced before. I felt so welcome. Like I actually belonged. It very nearly brought tears to my eyes.
And then the show started - and it only got better. Because the staff was made up entirely of folks like the crowd around me - Asian, Hawaiian, or mixed. The lone exception was one white actor playing the secondary role as one of the main character's boyfriend - the butt of "family" jokes about how bad he stood out, how "different" he was. A complete role reversal - and I loved it.*** I got to laugh along with the crowd. I was part of the joke.
And the thing is - had it been the worst play in the world, I wouldn't really have cared. I was there for the company and the experience. The play and the acting was secondary to my motives.
But the play was good. I mean, really well done. There was some impressive acting, humor interspersed with more serious material that actually made you think, and the lighting and sound was professional and smooth. All far beyond what I have come to expect from most "local theatre" I've seen (not to say that I go often, for obvious reasons, but still). Maybe I thought the play was so good because it resonated with me in a way that no other play ever could. But, mostly, I think it was just because it was good. ****
The play was "Whatever happened to John Boy Kihano?" by Susan Soon He Stanton (not the one pictured, actually). In brief (because I don't want to ruin it), the story was about a Hawaiian family and how they deal with the disappearance of the youngest child. It deftly touched on race, class, abuse, tradition, and culture without feeling contrived. Without hammering any of them. In fact, it handled all those as aspects of family, with the focus remaining on family - raising questions without righteousness or a need to "tell" us what to think about it. Making a note of it all, honoring it all, without moral lessons or the trite overindulgence of mainstream art. Native Hawaiian spirituality and culture was part of the story without spite, theft, or noble savagery.
A white playwrite could never have written this. Could never have done it with such respect and raw reality. Neither could a white director have put it together. And neither should they - there is plenty of great art to be made without trampling non-white culture (if only more artists understood that). And there are plenty of great non-white artists to make this kind and more (if only the world understood that).
And so the play wrapped me up and took me along. It harmonized with my own experiences and sang with me. Watching a play written by somebody that looks like me, about a family that looks like me with experiences that echo mine (in certain ways), portrayed by actors that looked like me, while sitting in an audience that looked more like family than my actual family does.
So when the performance finally ended, I wasn't ready. I wanted to hold onto that feeling, knowing it wasn't one I was going to repeat for a very long time, maybe ever. But it was over. There was nothing I could do.
And so I walked out, enveloped in a bubble of personal silence. The warm night air wrapped me in comfort and an uncontrollable sense of rightness as I walked down the street. I walked for five or six blocks through a completely abandoned downtown Honolulu with the darkness resting on my shoulders like my childhood blanket. It was too perfect - that experience had been all for me, something I needed so badly, and I didn't see a single other soul in the street as I walked - nobody to distract me from my moment. Nothing to keep me from contemplating the feelings and thoughts rushing through me - things that no blog entry could ever explain sufficiently.
When I finally made it to my car, I realized I had parked almost directly in front of the old palace. It was lit up majestically from the outside - and completely dark inside. Because nobody lived there, anymore. And my thoughts returned to what had made that night's experience possible - the sad history that created modern-day Hawaii. And so I will write on that next.
But - until then - just like on that last night, I will shake that off for a bit and remain wrapped in the pure bliss of acceptance and belonging I was blessed with on my last night in Honolulu. Because that moment was all mine, and nothing can make me let it go. And - exactly because it's something that has happened so seldom in my life - I will always appreciate it on a level that so few others can attain.
* Actually, I'm totally serious when I say the dude in the middle kind of looks like my brother . . .
** Maybe it was because - for the first time - I was smiling and glowing with positive energy before the show, instead of silently counting the people of color in the room.
*** Not fully a role-reversal, because his character actually got fleshed out past being a stereotype, more than usually happens for the funny "foreign" roles played by PoC in mainstream theatre and film.
**** So to all those who claim that there just aren't enough high-caliber non-white actors, directors, playwrites, etc. out there - you're so full of sh--.