Playing with Subtlety, Playing Strong
Troy M. Apostol is a Po‘okela Award-winning actor and director, and managing director for Hitting The Stage.
Kumu Kahua Theatre’s season opener, UchinaAloha, written by “Da Pidgin Guerilla” Lee Tonouchi and directed by Reiko Ho, is a fun, touching, familiar tale of culture clashing across the generation gap. Young David Yonamine (Kenny Kusaka) is a local slacker who dreams of jamming a more modern style of music, while his no-nonsense grandfather, Tamashiro Sensei (Shah J. Hoshida Bento), scolds him to pay attention and play traditional sanshin. Into their world comes Maria Ginoza (Maile Kapua‘ala), a visitor from Okinawa who stays with the family and teaches David a thing or two about present-day Okinawan culture, its similarity to local Hawaiian culture, and how different elements can sometimes come together to create beautiful music…
First and foremost, Tonouchi’s writing is always an enjoyable and fascinating thing to experience. The dialogue in this production plays with different levels of humor—some lines received huge waves of laughter, while others garnered more thoughtful chuckles. Also, while there are the obligatory good-natured jokes about Okinawans and their appearance (hairy arms, etc.), there are also some devastating facts about the US military presence on Japan's Okinawa prefecture, delivered by the Ginoza character as she plans to protest a similar aspect of that presence here in Hawaii.
Director Ho’s handling of Tonouchi’s playful, impactful material is a joy to witness. When the script calls for big and brash, Ho blows it up with blocking and tableau that are silly and super fun. And then on the flipside, Ho also creates beautiful, nuanced moments where time slows and everything hangs upon a single facial expression. The most successful use of this subtlety is in the work done with Serina Dunham as the Ghost of Mom character. The poetry created as Mom reacts to David and his woes are some of the best moments in the play.
The other cast members also shine when they take the stage. Kusaka plays David with all the necessary stubbornness and fire in scenes with granddad, but then also shows off local boy charm when Ginoza’s character comes into the picture. Also, extra points added for the uku-shin/san-lele solo. Bento as the wise, tough patriarch with a seldom seen caring side is casting perfection. His command of the stage is unquestionable. Collin (Gushiken) Hoo makes an impressive theatre debut as Elmer, David’s friend and fellow sanshin student. As the actual sanshin player of the cast, Hoo kicks off the show displaying his fine musical talent, and also hits a home run with his comical acting ability. Eun Ho Lee as Derrick also holds her own as another one of David’s cohorts, and gets praise for her turn as “sensei” when she leads the sanshin class, and again when she rocks the crowd during the protest concert. Last but certainly not least, even though Kapua‘ala’s Ginoza is a little tricky to understand at times due to the Okinawan accent, she absolutely steals the show with her comedic cuteness, especially when cultural incongruities make the character react with laughter. The scene where Ginoza has prepared a meal for the family is just priceless.
The eye-catching set design by BullDog includes a patchwork wall of shoji screens and the very amusing table-with-four-mismatched-chairs. Costumes by Dusty Behner do well to showcase the characters’ respective personalities and cultural backgrounds with color/patterns, plus there’s an added fun look for the finale concert. And sound and light design by Barett Hoover and Thomas Tochiki, respectively, also add to the world of the play, particularly with the latter’s subdued looks during ghost scenes, and wild display for the finale.
The show as a whole goes by pretty quick, probably under two hours without intermission. So while it certainly doesn’t drag, some development of dialogue might have added. But all in all it was a nice start to the season. Imua!