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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, September 8, 2004

'Territorial Plays' delve into Hawai'i's past

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser

"Territorial Plays" at Kumu Kahua is part history and part entertainment. History wins out.

Daniel Kunkel, standing, plays a plantation manager and Chance Gusukuma is a plantation worker in Kathryn Bond's "Cane Fire."

Photo by Brad Goda

The evening consists of three short one-acts by student writers that originally had limited exposure and varied success. While they offer insights into the decades that produced them, they don't fully connect with a contemporary audience unless their stories and characters touch universal feelings and experience.

A common theme in all the plays is the abrasion between a developing "local" Hawai'i (transplanted Asian) identity and the dominant (Mainland white) point of view. That abrasion produces pain that any audience can understand, but as one-acts, the plays generally lack the format to fully develop or exploit the character conflict.

The evening opens with "Cane Fire," written as a class assignment in 1936 by Kathryn Bond, focusing on attempts by a plantation manager to place blame for a wildfire. Director Harry Wong III stages it twice.

In the first version, the manager (Daniel James Kunkel) is a tyrant, angrily grilling his workers and overseers. In the second, explained during a short break as a depiction of "the white man's burden," the same dialogue paints a picture of a benevolent overseer rescuing his dark-skinned laborers from their native incompetence.

'Territorial Plays'

• 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 3; no show Sept. 10

• Kumu Kahua Theater

• $16 general admission, $13 seniors, $10 students

• 536-4441

The cast creates a variety of interesting accents with a fair degree of credibility. But the human drama in the piece comes in the minor role of a Japanese homesteader (Shiro Kawai) who confesses to starting the fire to clear land for planting, also revealing that one of his small children died in the blaze.

The second play is Lisa Toishigawa Inouye's "Reunion," written in 1946, also for a play-writing class. It depicts the restlessness of five Japanese-Hawaiians shortly after their return from Europe following World War II. Not much happens beyond a discussion of "How ya gonna keep 'em down in Kalihi after they've seen Paree?"

But the play is considered one of the first to effectively use pidgin and to allow local audiences to see themselves in a dramatic context. Its theme is that despite their newfound worldliness, the men are still treated as wayward boys after they return home.

The third play is Edward Sakamoto's first play, written in 1961, again as a class assignment. Sakamoto later developed "In the Alley" into his full length " 'A'ala Park", and followed it with a string of plays on Hawaiian themes that have been frequently produced here and on the Mainland.

"In the Alley" is a raw confrontation between a gang of alienated local youths and a wayward sailor, who represents the intrusive presence of the haole.

It is the most contemporary of the plays and has a direct and hard-hitting action line.

Chance Gusukama and Wil T. K. Kahele play a pair of angry, embittered young men ready to strike out at any available target. M. J. Gonzalvo is a more moderate soul, but is tempted toward violence by rising group emotion. And Daniel Lopaka Kalahele turns in a remarkably clear and sharp performance as the younger brother who argues instinctively for common sense.

Taken together, the plays represent an interesting evening of historical viewpoints, translated through the emotions of real characters.