Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Dissention is Patriotic": Fat Ulu's and Kumu Kahua's _The Statehood Project_

"Celebrating or mourning?"
"Expounding upon."


"Paradox. Ambivalence. A dialogue looking from all angles."

--Janna Plant, "Dialogue Notes RE: Statehood 6Feb09 Land Use Commission Meeting"

To read responses to Hawai`i's recent 50th anniversary of statehood (August 21, 1959) is to encounter stark either-or positions. In Nancy Moss's The Statehood Project skit, "Debate," the student Kenji says, "Think what it will mean for business!" while Ah Quon responds, "More people to oppress. Stick out in the fields cutting sugar cane." While Moss's skit is set at McKinley High School in 1937, in some ways the debate has not changed an iota. Consider the Governor's press release about the 50th anniversary. "Key breakout workshops include: Hawai‘i’s Tourism Future; Military Partnerships – Part of Our ‘Ohana . . ." These first two items speak volumes as to why Hawai`i became a state in the first place, and to the precariousness of its current economy, based almost exclusively on tourism and the military. Another gem among the celebrations of this 50th year is this one: "July 23, 2009 – The state’s namesake submarine, the USS Hawaii (SSN 776), the first Virginia-class submarine to be home-ported in the Pacific, arrived in Hawai‘i." The official celebrations, then, are more about what comes in from the outside than for what the inside is, a rich group of cultures and conflicts, a "state" unto itself.

Then there's this, from a series of articles in the Honolulu Advertiser by Michael Tsai. The money quote comes in the second paragraph:

"Fifty years later, Hawaiian activists are calling for an end to the statehood era, not as a goal unto itself but as a necessary step in remediating a series of illegal acts through which, they say, the United States robbed Hawai'i of its rightful status as a sovereign nation."


The "or" in Janna Plant's question (above) is crucial: "commemorating or mourning?" It's also what makes conversation on the subject of statehood so difficult, and the series of skits and monologues now at Kumu Kahua Theatre in downtown Honolulu so hard to pull off. Pull them off they have--Harry Wong and his troupe of seven actors and a participating stage manager.

While mourning is clearly foremost in the minds of the "spontaneous collaborators" of The Statehood Project (more on the project's origins here), contemporary hot button issues (Hawaiian sovereignty, Asian Settler Colonialism, tourism, the military presence, and on and on) are mostly presented satirically. There's a joy and a lightness to the presentation that does not cover over, but opens up, these issues to fruitful discussion. Or so it seems to this audience member. (My colleague Ruth Hsu, whose piece "`Ohana" is included, says a few people walked out of the theatre the first week; no one but an actor walked out last night, yelling as she went that she would cancel her subscription.) Much of the humor is physical--a young woman's unspoken anger comes to life as she pummels her Navy sailor date--and its physicality proposes an immediate release, or redirection, to the tensions built up in dialogue.

The "spontaneous collaboration" is necessarily uneven, poem ceding to skit ceding to monologue. What holds the pieces together is a series of performances of Wayne Westlake's poem, "Statehood" which goes:

The poem is performed several times, first by a single actor, later by all the actors. The poem is spoken and sung as lament, as cry, as fugue.

If the Westlake poem is the chord that resolves the piece, the project itself is quite diffuse. Ann Inoshita's skit on a young local Japanese girl who discovers Asian Settler Colonialism on her own and decides she needs to go back to Japan, ends when she finds a sympathetic ear in the psychiatrist her parents take her to. The shrink persuades her that she needs to speak standard English and ought to learn American history, if only to oppose it. Gavin McCall's "Detention," about kids picking up trash at school as punishment, also comes close to a breaking point when one character asks how mixed race people could go back to their "homelands": "Yeah, yeah, so what, spend half my time one place, the other half somewhere else? How that would work with half-Hawaiian people, then?" The irresolution of the piece comes when character #2 tells his friend (#1, who favors statehood) that "Maybe no can actually do anything. But bra, no try deny what happened, the go rip on Ms. Kanaka`ole for talking about it."

Other highlights of the production were Ryan Oishi's "Ballad of the Last Goat on Kaho`olawe," spoken by an actor wearing goat ears and occasionally braying a bit, surrounded as she is by her dead (bombed) peers; Sage Uilani Takehiro's potty-humored take down of ethnic stereotypes, "State Throne," in which actors are all pooping together on one small pot; and Jason K. Ellinwood's "The 1959 Joint-Ethnic Commission on Hawaiian Statehood," another take-down of stereotypes. Double take-down, actually, as actors assume non-blood roles. The skinny white woman actor becomes a large Samoan; another actor is sometimes Korean, sometimes Puerto Rican; another is Chinese and Filipino.

The writing is good throughout, though I found "Bringing Donna Home" tedious and badly placed at the end of the show. But what makes this production work is that Kumu Kahua's actors perform the roles assigned them so well. Yes, it's a play and so of necessity a performance. But what they get at with near perfect pitch is that Hawai`i is a place where people are assigned--or assign themselves--roles. The state is a performance, often a deadly serious one. No wonder so much art here is broadly performative, whether it's slam poetry or comedy or theater. It's no mistake that The Statehood Project works best when it is most satirical; it's through our (sometimes angry, always self-directed) laughter that we recognize our parts in the ambivalent, fraught, paradoxical dialogue.

For performance times, ticket prices, other details, see here.

Buy the book here.

"Dissention is patriotic" is a quote from Kimo Armitage's "Onelauena"


Now available in a second edition, Lee Tonouchi's Living Pidgin from Tinfish Press.

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