Set Sail at Kumu Kahua Theatre
To my recollection, I have never seen a one-man show before. I’ve heard of them and was always scared to approach them as a consumer. To be engaged by one person for a little over an hour, and only that person, can be a lot to ask. How does this work? Will I like it? How is it structured? How can I be attached for such a long time to just one person? Will I be bored? Why am I afraid? Am I close-minded?
I try my hardest to write from a point of honesty, and this is as honest as I can be. The aforementioned is the mental headspace I had when I sat down in Kumu Kahua Theatre watching an older, bearded man spending time preparing for his show in his makeshift tent in a prison yard. It was there that I heard the tale of James F. O’Connell, both written and played by Daniel A. Kelin, II: Shipwreck’d on the Body Beautiful, or the Tats Dancing Man, directed by Harry Wong III.
It’s the easiest to talk about the performance first. Kelin as O’Connell sank into the Irish man’s skin (you can’t say shoes, he takes them off early in the show), spinning a story that had all of us in the house not peeling an eye away, rapt. The charm lay in his earnest character work and genuinely fascinating story about O’Connell’s time on Pohnpei, and how he and his shipwrecked crewmates ended up surviving their time there. Kelin waxes upon these times nostalgic, as they happened when he was a much younger man; demonstrating this evening-long tale pushes Kelin physically over the length of the performance, and through sweat and labored breath you understand the commitment to the role. He also does many an Irish jig, as O’Connell relied on his Irish song and dance skills to demonstrate his value to his Pohnpeian captors. Kudos to Jonathan Sypert, choreographer, as well as Kelin, for the spry stepping that Irish dance is known for. As a closing note in this portion about Kelin’s performance, I walked in not knowing what to expect and was moved by his energy, charisma, and drive. His vulnerability and heart were on display as O’Connell sees time and time again the humanity of his captors, who eventually come to adopt them into their tribe. I am no longer a virgin to one-person shows, and I’m glad this was my first.
Spoken and alluded to in both Kelin and Wong’s notes, there is a deeper narrative. After all, the show is billed as a “true story of physical appropriation.” Wong says, “’…it’s about a white male savior, I think. It’s not about native culture. I guess he uses that culture to tell his story.’ O’Connell’s story is about that ‘use’ of native culture.” Kelin refers to many quotes, both of the time period and contemporary, to get you thinking about the colonial thinking of the time (i.e. man versus savage, the exoticism of other cultures), what tattooing means and how its meaning has waned over the years, and how people often cling to their heritage as an identity when they were not even born in their home country, but as an immigrant in another country. A layered, complex story is told by Kelin, and often I as an audience member found myself asking “where was the appropriation?” Appropriation is defined as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.” James F. O’Connell and his mates were shipwrecked on Pohnpei, and relied on their culture to save them via entertainment. Thus, O’Connell was made to elevate the chief’s status by taking him into his family, tattooing him, and marrying him to his daughter. After being rescued, O’Connell realizes his options in life are limited, as he is met with varying degrees of negativity because of his tattoos (he is actually the first documented tattooed man to arrive in America). Thus, he enlists with PT Barnum and uses his tattoos as a performance as long as he can, and ends up leaving. Here, in this production, we see him having set up a makeshift tent in the middle of a prison yard, telling all who will pay and listen his tale of his time in Pohnpei, using his tattoos as a storytelling vehicle once again. What does this all mean? Is O’Connell a bad guy? Are the Pohnpeians the bad ones? What is “bad?” I think, in today’s day and age, I am quite used to forming an opinion on one side or the other- a very binary way to think and go about one’s life. This isn’t productive, and I actively try to fight against this line of thinking, but I admit it was my first go-to when analyzing O’Connell’s tale as written and played by Kelin. However, I think moving forward with the idea that there is no “wrong,” per se, is fine. Yes, O’Connell is a white man who used the native culture of Pohnpei for his own use. Yes, the Pohnpeians used O’Connell as an object of status, and relegated him to their customs. Yes, if the voyage had not gone awry, we would not have known about the Pohnpeians for a while, or even James F. O’Connell for that matter. The facts are present in the script and online for perusal, and both Kelin’s and Wong’s notes also help. In fact, the amount of research that Kelin did to inform his script is admirable, and he lists those who helped in the playbill. I encourage you to find the message yourself, and decide what all of this means to you.
Eric West as the set and props designer is to be commended- his attention to detail was fantastic, and his stage that he built for Kelin to perform on was always full of surprises. Cora Yamagata’s lighting design was subtle but well-utilized, framing certain moments in unsuspecting ways. Mia Yoshimoto, the tattoo designer, and Carlynn Wolfe, the costume consultant, are to be applauded for Kelin’s look- they succeeded in creating a costume that not only slowly introduces the audience to O’Connell’s tattoos, but also one that is able to function in the telling of the story throughout the evening.
I entered this show with an open mind, not knowing what to expect. I implore you to do the same! Be swept off into the seas of the journey of James F. O’Connell, and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see the heart of the tattoos on his skin. Shipwreck’d on the Body Beautiful, or the Tats Dancing Man is playing at Kumu Kahua Theatre throughout February 17. Tickets are available here.