Patchwork Plantation Aloha
Like a favorite patchwork quilt made of fond, faded memories, the latest production at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, A Plantation Celebration, is a collection of handcrafted material from different sources lovingly stitched together to make a whole. These commemorative stories come together to envelop the audience in aloha as they bid a fond farewell to the end of a recently bygone era. With this year’s closing of Hawai‘i’s last planation, the hour-long show for ages five and up pays tribute to over a century and a half of field labor life and culture in the islands with a compilation of original songs, monologues, and scenes written by top local writers and theatre celebrities. Directed by former HTY Artistic Director Mark Lutwak and with works by authors Lee Cataluna, Alvin Chan, Moses Goods, Juliet Kono, Gary Pak, Darrell Lum and Bryan Wake, as well as songs by Chan and Lutwak, the show has plenty of laughs and local insights, and also a few deeply moving, even achingly sorrowful moments.
As the audience enters Tenney Theatre on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. Andrew, Lighting Designer Chesley Cannon’s red paper lanterns adorning the performance hall get one in the spirit of the cultural fun and festivities. Following the lanterns towards the stage, one takes in Set and Prop Designer Jennifer Eccles' rustic, welcoming acting environment, a patchwork of wooden structures in its own right. As the show starts, Cannon’s naturalistic lighting warmly illuminates the action, where cast members utilize Eccles’ plantation-appropriate props and also some large crates as sittables. Amidst the casual, country set and lighting is stationed the stage’s juxtaposing central projection screen, displaying Cannon’s effective imagery such as old black and white footage of actual field workers, and also animation showing the multicultural development of Hawaiian Creole English, aka Pidgin. But maybe the crowd favorite projection was an interactive picture frame. Spooky, dat kine.
Actors Chan, Sean-Joseph Choo, Maile Holck, Junior Tesoro and Christina Uyeno all do fine work with the different pieces and uphold HTY’s reputation as Hawai‘i’s only professional theatre company, though there definitely seemed to be favored performances among the children. I sat in on a weekday school show, and for the audience comprised of half 3rd and 6th graders, the production only really got started with Choo’s well-crafted delivery of Chan’s “Bachi” about becoming a Peewee champion. The next piece, “Help Mama” by Wake, gets special mention for Uyeno’s handling of the factual, overwhelming layers of hot field worker clothing sourced by Costume Designer Iris Kim. The students seemed quite preoccupied with the stifling gear. And then other pieces that received big crowd reactions were “What You Get?” and “Orange Magic” by Pak. In the former, antics by Chan over Tesoro’s impending bite of Spam sandwich got the students rolling, and then in the latter, Tesoro’s amusing sleight of hand had the children in awe.
But maybe more impressive than the actors’ working of the crowd were the written stories themselves. The varied material has something for everyone, with different literary styles that entrance, educate, and entertain. One personal favorite included Goods’ “Ke Kulāiwi” about two Hawaiian children forbidden from playing on ‘aina now owned by the plantation, forbidden from entering ‘aina where their ancestors are buried. Goods’ convention of forcing the young characters to translate their ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘I into English deftly showed the struggles of changing times through the eyes of a child. But maybe the most impactful pieces were by Kono: “Rice-bag Sheets and Pillow Cases” and “The Same Moon and Stars.” The exquisite poetry of the former turned a tale of washing laundry into a fanciful journey, while the devastating storytelling of the latter, about a Japanese picture bride facing the harsh reality of her new husband and new life on the plantation, exposed raw nerve. And though I wondered if the material was too dark and/or complex for the child audience, Holck’s masterful delivery of that latter story, backed by Choo’s soulful guitar playing, was the highlight of the show.
A Plantation Celebration plays until the 17th. Immerse yourself in the patchwork quilt of Hawai‘i’s plantation history and heritage, and discover the real reason why you don’t drink out of a garden hose.