Remembering Lisa Matsumoto
By Jolie Jean Cotton
Special to The Advertiser
By Jolie Jean Cotton
Local playwright and children's book author Lisa Matsumoto was a comet, her life and work an inextricable flood of creativity and energy and light. The crushing news of her death Dec. 14 took me back in my thoughts to March 2000, when Matsumoto and I first met to discuss her work. We sat down to talk in a booth at Zippy's on Vineyard Boulevard.
Matsumoto was not the person I expected to meet. Her trilogy of plays and her books for kids had long been woven into the fabric of local culture. She was a well-known and beloved icon in Hawai'i. But the Lisa sitting opposite me that day was a shy local girl who seemed not to fully understand the magnitude of the role she herself had played in her own success. Matsumoto was quick to point out that her success was always due to collaboration. To her mind, the work was never about her.
"What I stumbled upon and wanted to create happened to be something people wanted, something that the community was touched by in some way," Matsumoto said. "In our works, we try to present a family-type atmosphere. There are no stars; we are an ensemble. That's where our magic comes from."
From her earliest years, reading and writing were at the center of Matsumoto.
"When I was young, I used to love to read. I loved to read fairy tales, mythology and legends, all of those things," Matsumoto said. "In seventh grade, I started a novel. I never finished. I got to Chapter 5, I think."
Matsumoto's book collaborations with cousin Michael Furuya began as a childhood dream.
"When I was in elementary school, my cousin was always drawing, and we used to tell each other, 'One day we'll make books together; I'll write the stories and you can do the drawings,' " Matsumoto said. " ... Since we were children, we had that dream, and to see it realized is really special."
From their first endeavor, "How the B-52 Cockroach Learned to Fly," Matsumoto and Furuya raised the bar on locally produced books for children. Matsumoto's captivating storytelling and Furuya's striking illustrations won that picture book the Kapalapala Po'okela award for Excellence in Children's Books in 1996.
"I like to write for the kid in all of us, the side of us that's optimistic and full of joy and likes to laugh and play and imagine. That's a side of us that is easy to forget," Matsumoto said. "It's a part of us that feeds our soul and fills our spirit."
While Matsumoto and Furuya went on to create four more books for kids, their stage work garnered the most attention.
"People have thought of me as the 'Pidgin Playwright,' " Matsumoto said. "It was just my way of celebrating the melting pot here, and the spirit of aloha and that whole 'ohana feeling. That was the intent when I wrote 'Once Upon One Time.'
"As much as I love fairy tales, I can't relate to a big bad wolf, or a Black Forest. I thought, 'Why not bring the fairy tale home? Why not have our own forest, with the mean mongoose, and villains we can associate with that are here locally?' That's the beginning of how it all evolved."
The velocity of Matsumoto's life was staggering. She said she woke at about 9, started on the computer, then made calls, went to meetings and worked until 2 or 3 a.m., sending out e-mail.
The morning of our meeting, Matsumoto praised her volunteers "who put in 110 percent," she said: Michael, her mentor Tammy Hunt at the University of Hawai'i, Diamond Head Theatre, and many others.
"If you give, it just comes back," Matsumoto said. " ... All we've ever wanted to do is to create art or shows for people to enjoy, to enrich their lives, or bring a smile."
Jolie Jean Cotton, author of "Pua's Paniolo Parade" (2001), writes about children's books for The Advertiser.