An Expedited Delivery to "Shipment Day"
Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, used to wreak havoc around the world. A bacteriological disease that affects the nerves, skin, eyes, and nose, it is a disease that even today has some stigma attached to it, despite the advances in modern medicine. In the days before understanding Hansen’s and knowing how to cure it, people would often quarantine those infected and ship them off to “leper colonies” in a remote location far from civilization. It was once thought to be highly contagious, which was the reason for the expulsion. Hawaii is not removed from this part of history, as it’s Board of Health used to quarantine those developing signs of leprosy at Kalihi Hospital on Oahu, shipping “untreatable” cases to Kalaupapa on Maui. Shipment Day, Manoa Valley Theatre’s second show of it’s banner 50th season, addresses this dark time often swept aside in history, specifically around the 1930’s.
Shipment Day is a look into the life of Olivia Robello (played by Kuʻulei Shafee), a young woman who had contracted leprosy. Almost all aspects of her life- family, love, work- ground to a halt when the Board of Health was notified that she tested positive for the disease, and she spent a couple of years in quarantine at Kalihi Hospital before ultimately being shipped off to Molokai. It’s written and directed by Olivia’s cousin, Lorzeno DeStefano.
The set (designed by Michelle Bisbee) is fairly minimal, with a lot of levels, stairs, and portals of entry and exit, allowing the set to become the many different locations it needed to be (for example, the three Robello households, Kalihi Hospital, Hawaii Theatre, etc.). The ensemble (Karen Kaulana, Denise Aiko Chinen, Lauren Murata, William Haʻo, Maleko McDonnell, David Heulitt, Richard Bragon) pull double, sometimes triple duty as they play all the family, friends, and obstacles in Olivia’s life. Excellent lighting by Jonah Bobilin really helps frame and elevate key moments, and the combined work of Costume Designers Jennifer Hart and Trudy Hodenfield alongside Hair and Makeup Designer Lisa Ponce de Leon created looks that make for a great window into the aesthetic of Hawaii circa 1934-37.
This is a very interesting and important story to tell. Much like a lot of tough history that surrounds both Hawaii and America, the treatment of the state’s citizens affected by leprosy is a dark and telling time of history. The science was trying to treat something it didn’t completely understand, and they responded in kind, at the behest of citizens. This, I understand. Olivia’s story is one of loss, of struggle, and unending perseverance as she gets dealt with obstacles that life throws at her. I understand this, as well.
My contention with the production was that it often rushes through moments that greatly rocked and affected Olivia’s life. The pace of which the story travels is too quick for it’s own good. There are various moments in this play that could have been fleshed out more and/or have been made longer in my opinion, and they all either focus on her relationships with her family members or how she personally deals with the tumult that is constantly manifesting in her life. Shafee as Olivia is narrating her own story throughout the whole play, making a lot of the play “tell” rather than “show.” This, combined with the accelerated pace (the play is about 90 minutes without an intermission) makes many markers in Olivia’s life feel like fluff as opposed to actual moments and experiences she lived through. The play could have easily been longer and focused in order to tell a meatier story, one that perhaps didn’t rely so much on Olivia’s narration permeating majority of the play.
It is difficult to articulate how I enjoyed this play for what it was and understood it’s intent, but also want to express how there could have been “more.” I think that speaks to the material itself: much of Olivia’s story is gripping, and to have it wrapped up so fast makes me want to learn even more about her and her life before and after her “shipment day.”
Through this fast paced story lay many poignant and beautiful scenes. Olivia’s first night alone at the Kalihi Hospital, with her lying on her bed with the fan slowly turning, was powerful and haunting. The conversation with her mother (Kaulana) between the chain link fence and the conversation with her father (Ha’o) at the Robello’s second house were both tender, heartfelt moments that really demonstrated the beautiful chemistry between the family and the cast. The entire last night Olivia spends with her friends on Oahu feels like it can almost be it’s own play on it’s own, with how many twists and turns there were.
Much like how Olivia took a brave step forward towards Kalaupapa by getting on the boat, Manoa Valley Theatre and Playwright/Director DeStefano took a brave step in telling Olivia’s story. To be able to capture someone’s life, especially a family member’s, is difficult, but this play was a fascinating glimpse into this woman’s life. Exciting, heart wrenching, and peppered with comedy to ease the tension here and there, Shipment Day invites you to experience Olivia Robello’s story yourself. Shipment Day runs at Manoa Valley Theatre through November 25, click here for tickets.