A Shadow Both Dark and Important
The night I attend Paliku Theatre’s A Walking Shadow, it was pouring. The wind and rain can be heard quietly raging against the theatre. Elevating the somber mood of the production, it cast the perfect shadow for the dark story that director/playwright Taurie Kinoshita and her Theatre 260 class shine a light on.
A Walking Shadow is the story of Myles Fukunaga (Alaka’I Cunningham), a young nisei (second generation Japanese) that killed Gill Jamieson, a 10-year old Punahou student, in Waikiki. Myles’ story, life, and rights were rushed through and brushed away during the trial and investigation, and the play seeks to explore Myles’ motivations, drive, and emotional highs and lows as well as explore the different parts of his life where he did not get the adequate help he had needed. Taking place in the 1920’s, mental health was still being studied but not quite understood. Methods were rudimentary, experiments were not held with the same moral rigor regarded by today’s scientists, and the public stigma around it was terribly great, some of which still very much lives on in today’s zeitgeist unfortunately. Myles suffered from degenerative mental health, specifically a dissociation disorder (I could not recall the full name of the diagnosis given from the production), and as the production unfolds you see a young man spiraling downwards, unable to find himself solace in a tumultuous cloud of umbra.
All the lines by Myles and the Kings of Shadow, the darker manifestations of his psyche, are taken from transcripts or letters my Fukunaga himself, save for four lines and some quoted literature passages. Dr. Lockwood Myrick’s lines were from an actual open letter to Governor Farrington that he wrote about Fukunaga. The rest of the testimonials (various characters, including his mother, sister, and his employers) were written by Kinoshita. The production is told somewhat chronologically, but framed in a documentary sort of way, with very few scenes with dialogue in them. Instead, we are taken through Myles’ life via testimonials from different people in and around his life, with a great deal more coming from his Sister (Daphnei Hussein). Myles is almost always onstage, and when he is not in his own world, he is used to briefly accent the testimonials given.
There is obviously a lot to unpack from this production, and I will not be able to comment on all of it. I am longing to go and see it a second time, just to watch and dissect the case even more. With a topic so sensitive as mental health and a person so rooted in Honolulu’s immigrant history, it is clear from the lines and the performance that Kinoshita and her students have done a wealth of research into this period of time.
Reading the Director’s Note, the theme of the play was agency, both cultural and mental. There were different slices and angles that the cast and crew could have framed this (for example, immigration, poverty, racial inequity, etc.) but ultimately it was agency that they settled on, and this informed the rest of the play.
Something that brought me out of the world of the production were the performances. Cunningham was technically consistent throughout the night, but the way he delivers his lines in that defensive bellow of his sometimes worked against him. When it wasn’t too loud, sometimes it was simply too slow where you were finishing the lines he was speaking in your head before he got there. The performance was deliberate, and I recognize the work and research put into the role, but it just got in the way of the story (and himself) a few times throughout the show. Speaking of performances, towards the second half of the production, the actors had made it clear during the trial that they would be upstaging each other with a sleeping gag. I’m usually a sucker for comedy, and welcome it as a vent for the audience to release their stress. However, it just felt lie an odd addition, a joke that fell flat that went on for too long distracting us from the scene.
All that being said, many things worked in this production’s favor as well. The set and projection design is minimal, and that plays to the favor of the actors, whom are working to drive the narrative forward. Cunningham’s performance, again, is raw and consistent, and does not shy away from the darker parts of the psyche that he has to dive into, at his best delivering a very nuanced and complex character. The rest of the ensemble had a huge job ahead of them- to be a ton of different characters. They succeeded, making their characters different enough where there was no question who they were on stage. The entire premise of the production is also noteworthy- this is an event that rocked Oahu and Honolulu and shook it’s inhabitants to their core, igniting a wave of race related crimes and issues. Told in this documentary style, I was immediately drawn in and had to keep shifting in my seat because of the real, yet uncomfortable twists that the narrative had taken. On a final note, the chemistry and coordination between Myles and his Kings of Shadow were tight and they were able to deliver a lot of chilling and dynamic moments together.
Ultimately, this production is meant to start and maintain a conversation many are too scared to have about mental illness. Having a mental issue is not a sign of weakness, nor is getting help for it. After Pakalolo Sweet (Kumu Kahua Theatre), I’m glad this production is continuing the conversation and trying to ease the stigma around mental instability.
I encourage you to see this show about Honolulu and the story of one young man who had the cards stacked against him. Dark and chilling in its reality, a grave reminder that a lot of thoughts and elements from the past are still very much present today. Kicking off it’s final weekend, from October 24-October 27 (Wed at 4:00pm, Thu-Sat at 7:30pm), A Walking Shadow can be found at Windward Community College’s Paliku Theatre. Click here for tickets or seek the Paliku Theatre box office.