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Hapa in Hawaii: Kumu Kahua Theatre

March 23, 2009

So here’s the moment of truth – which guy in the above photo is the CVT? Maybe the one in the middle, getting held back – he is pretty fiery.* Or maybe he’s the one grimacing as he tries to hold the main guy back – the CVT tries to quash conflict. The guy in the way back is too old to be the CVT. But it could be any of the other ones. From what you can see, any of these guys could be hapa (mixed Asian/white).

So which one is me?

None of them, actually. This is a PR photo for a theatre production in Honolulu. However, what is important is that, knowing what you all know about my physical appearance – any of these guys could be me.

Let’s say that again – any of the actors in the play pictured could be me, in terms of phenotype. How often have I ever been able to say that about any live performance art (music, theatre, sport, or otherwise)? Never.

Until last Saturday night.

To kick off my little “Hapa in Honolulu” series, I’m going to start at the end. My last night. And my best night.

To end my trip to Oahu, I decided I wanted to soak up the “blending-in” good feelings as heavily as possible. So I found this local theatre company, Kumu Kahua Theatre (KKT), that focuses on plays about Hawaiian people, written by Hawaiians, casting Hawaiian actors. From my research, it became clear that this was not going to be like every other theatre experience from my past – watching a mostly-white cast confront mostly-white issues for a mostly-white audience – and me standing out alone in the middle. No – this time, I might actually blend in.

And the second I walked up to the theatre to get my ticket, I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed. The audience was waiting outside for the doors to open, and I couldn’t help but get giddy as I looked at them. It was a collection of Asian, mixed-Asian, mixed-other, and Hawaiian folks waiting. I slid in and nobody really noticed, while a couple random theatre-goers stood out like sore thumbs, visually – the handful of white folks.

It was a complete 180 on any other audience experience I’ve had in the States (except maybe in the Bay, but even there, white is the noticeable majority). I wanted to run around hugging people. I couldn’t stop smiling. All these people kind of looked like me! Amazing.

So the doors opened up, and I walked in. One of the troupe members was showing people the way, and he could have passed for my brother – very clearly hapa. A bit Asian, a little white, maybe something else. I greeted him enthusiastically (and probably freaked him out a bit – I might have been a bit too eager about it all) and entered the theatre.

I was one of the first people in, so there were plenty of seating options and – for the first time – I actually chose to be in the front row. This matters because – in a small local theatre like this – being in the front row would put me almost literally in the play, in full view. Since I usually feel out of place at things like this, I generally choose to hide in the back, in the darkness.

But not this time. This time – I was going to be right up there, making sure I had the maximum amount of similar faces surrounding me.

The rest of the crowd rolled in, and two older ladies chose to sit in the seat next to me. There were other seats available – they could have sat with a “buffer” seat between us like what always happens anywhere else I’ve been (literally – always – if there is an option to not sit next to me, that’s what happens).** The family on my left was an Asian family (Japanese). The ladies on my right, probably Hawaiian. I wasn’t isolated in my private little space with buffer seats around me, obviously alone. No – this time, I had people choosing to sit next to me. And even better – a random observer would never have known I was alone, because it was just as plausible that I was with either of the groups sitting around me – as I could have passed as a relative of either group without anybody questioning it.

I was home. I was comfortable. It was like being back in the f-ing womb. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever felt like that before. I was part of the audience on a level that I had never experienced before. I felt so welcome. Like I actually belonged. It very nearly brought tears to my eyes.

And then the show started – and it only got better. Because the staff was made up entirely of folks like the crowd around me – Asian, Hawaiian, or mixed. The lone exception was one white actor playing the secondary role as one of the main character’s boyfriend – the butt of “family” jokes about how bad he stood out, how “different” he was. A complete role reversal – and I loved it.*** I got to laugh along with the crowd. I was part of the joke.

And the thing is – had it been the worst play in the world, I wouldn’t really have cared. I was there for the company and the experience. The play and the acting was secondary to my motives.

But the play was good. I mean, really well done. There was some impressive acting, humor interspersed with more serious material that actually made you think, and the lighting and sound was professional and smooth. All far beyond what I have come to expect from most “local theatre” I’ve seen (not to say that I go often, for obvious reasons, but still). Maybe I thought the play was so good because it resonated with me in a way that no other play ever could. But, mostly, I think it was just because it was good. ****

The play was “Whatever happened to John Boy Kihano?” by Susan Soon He Stanton (not the one pictured, actually). In brief (because I don’t want to ruin it), the story was about a Hawaiian family and how they deal with the disappearance of the youngest child. It deftly touched on race, class, abuse, tradition, and culture without feeling contrived. Without hammering any of them. In fact, it handled all those as aspects of family, with the focus remaining on family – raising questions without righteousness or a need to “tell” us what to think about it. Making a note of it all, honoring it all, without moral lessons or the trite overindulgence of mainstream art. Native Hawaiian spirituality and culture was part of the story without spite, theft, or noble savagery.

A white playwrite could never have written this. Could never have done it with such respect and raw reality. Neither could a white director have put it together. And neither should they – there is plenty of great art to be made without trampling non-white culture (if only more artists understood that). And there are plenty of great non-white artists to make this kind and more (if only the world understood that).

And so the play wrapped me up and took me along. It harmonized with my own experiences and sang with me. Watching a play written by somebody that looks like me, about a family that looks like me with experiences that echo mine (in certain ways), portrayed by actors that looked like me, while sitting in an audience that looked more like family than my actual family does.

So when the performance finally ended, I wasn’t ready. I wanted to hold onto that feeling, knowing it wasn’t one I was going to repeat for a very long time, maybe ever. But it was over. There was nothing I could do.

And so I walked out, enveloped in a bubble of personal silence. The warm night air wrapped me in comfort and an uncontrollable sense of rightness as I walked down the street. I walked for five or six blocks through a completely abandoned downtown Honolulu with the darkness resting on my shoulders like my childhood blanket. It was too perfect – that experience had been all for me, something I needed so badly, and I didn’t see a single other soul in the street as I walked – nobody to distract me from my moment. Nothing to keep me from contemplating the feelings and thoughts rushing through me – things that no blog entry could ever explain sufficiently.

When I finally made it to my car, I realized I had parked almost directly in front of the old palace. It was lit up majestically from the outside – and completely dark inside. Because nobody lived there, anymore. And my thoughts returned to what had made that night’s experience possible – the sad history that created modern-day Hawaii. And so I will write on that next.

But – until then – just like on that last night, I will shake that off for a bit and remain wrapped in the pure bliss of acceptance and belonging I was blessed with on my last night in Honolulu. Because that moment was all mine, and nothing can make me let it go. And – exactly because it’s something that has happened so seldom in my life – I will always appreciate it on a level that so few others can attain.

* Actually, I’m totally serious when I say the dude in the middle kind of looks like my brother . . .

** Maybe it was because – for the first time – I was smiling and glowing with positive energy before the show, instead of silently counting the people of color in the room.

*** Not fully a role-reversal, because his character actually got fleshed out past being a stereotype, more than usually happens for the funny “foreign” roles played by PoC in mainstream theatre and film.

**** So to all those who claim that there just aren’t enough high-caliber non-white actors, directors, playwrites, etc. out there – you’re so full of sh–.

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13 comments

  1. Have you ever wondered that the reason why most American movies feature White actors is because Whites want to see someone who looks like them?

    As well, that play in Hawaii was not representative of its demographics—Hawaii is 42% White.

    One, just one White actor??? That’s racist!


  2. Your piece was realy moving, though reading the other comment took some of the wind out of my sails b/c it totally didn’t get what you were describing and is so wrapped up in white privilege. Maybe it is satire, I hope so but suspect not.

    Are you starting to consider moving to Hawaii? Just to ease your state of mind? I understand it has a high standard of living, but it sounds like it would be worth it to soothe your soul, even if just for awhile.

    I think it is great though that even if you don’t move there or get to visit again that you had a chance to feel like you belonged and saw people who looked like you and had a chance to see people in a play who look like you who did EVERYTHING in the show, not just be a sad sterotype or a token. Though I am black and to get to see black folks on tv, and sometimes in their own shows or movies, I know how you feel since I see more things just with white people and I never see anything with all Asian people and rarely with just Latino people, so I know how starved you must have been for that. I remember how excited I was when they regularly starting having black people on my favorite british show, the cult hit Dr. Who and they were real characters, not silent hulking black guards or tough men, but realy fully fleshed human characters.

    I look forward to the rest of your series. I’m always excited to see your new posts because your articles are always so well-thought out, interesting and well written.


  3. @ Angela –
    I am going to assume that you’re the “Anonymous” that posted a while back. Please let me know if I’m wrong in this.

    And if your comments are satire, let me know that, too. In the meantime, I’ll treat them as real.

    “Have you ever wondered that the reason why most American movies feature White actors is because Whites want to see someone who looks like them?”

    Exactly. So much so that they are unable to comfortably allow others a similar experience, apparently.

    Without even meaning to, you hit my whole post and feeling right on the head – as I describe THE ONLY TIME IN MY LIFE where I have been part of an audience in a theatre experience (film, or otherwise) that reflects me and my experiences – you respond defensively.

    Again – I never say a single bad thing about white people or American movies. I just write how good it feels that I found something that was for me – just once. And you try to bring me down for it.

    When almost EVERY TIME YOU GO OUT, you get that experience that was world-altering for me. EVERY TIME YOU TURN ON THE TV, you see faces like yours. This country’s media plays for YOU – even though a large proportion of this country DOESN’T LOOK LIKE YOU.

    And yet – the one time I get to feel that, you feel a need to try to take it away. Going so far as to call it racist? Maybe that’s supposed to be sarcastic, a play on my reactions to American media. I don’t know.

    I never said it’s wrong that white people want to see people like them. It’s wrong when they ignore other races, or cast them as stereotypes (which this play did NOT do, although it could have, with the white character). It’s wrong when 99% of media is white-dominated. I’ve said it a million times, but race isn’t isolated instances – it’s a lifetime of dealing with this kind of thing. It’s wrong when “seeing someone who looks like them” turns into trying to take away my right and enjoyment of just that – the ONE TIME it ever happened.

    Please read this to get some perspective on this:
    http://choptensils.blogspot.com/2008/09/on-being-other.html

    @ Lisa J – Gotta’ love folks’ need to hurt other people and steal even their best moments away, don’t you?

    Anyway – this trip made me VERY seriously think about living in Hawaii. Right now, I’m mulling over the logistics and economic reality of it. Wherever I go with that, I’ll definitely update you all on this blog.


  4. I had a similar experience when I went to Hawaii on vacation. It was bizarre – not only were there people everywhere who looked like me, all the Hawaiian people I met assumed I was one of them, and on vacation from one of the other islands. It was so completely weird to just *be*.
    And so completely weird to be accepted – no second glances when I walked into a store, or sat down at a table in a cafe. To have people stike up conversations with me about the tidal pools, or the snorkeling, or the Harry Potter book I was reading, and NOT “where are you/your parents from” or “what are you” or….

    It didn’t occur to me at the time, but reading your post and the comments it strikes me as unbelievably tragic: is that what white people feel all of the time? That they can be unguardedly themselves and no one will question it? And someone like you or I can only feel that, experience that, in very specific contexts?


  5. “…is that what white people feel all of the time? That they can be unguardedly themselves and no one will question it? And someone like you or I can only feel that, experience that, in very specific contexts?”

    Bluefoot, not *all* Whites experience that. Immigrants from Europe do not, they also stand out for whatever reason (accent, etc..).

    It all has to do with who’s the majority. In both of your cases, Whites are the majority, so of course that you will feel left out, while they won’t.

    But in another environment, say majority Asian, Whites will experience the same feelings of uneasiness and of not belonging.

    Whites that go to Asia, Africa, Middle East experience the same feelings that you describe here.


  6. @ Marc –
    I agree with you on the context, and for pointing out recent-immigrants who happen to be white won’t feel like they’re “blending in” at all.

    That said – I don’t agree that white folks traveling to other countries experience the same feelings that a PoC in America does. Because it all comes down to CHOICE – a white person in a majority non-white country (barring being born there) CHOSE to be there. They decided to go for whatever reason, voluntarily choosing to stand out for an assumed payoff (learning about other people, tourism, whatever). And, ultimately, they always have the option to LEAVE if/when things become too uncomfortable (there is always an out waiting in the wings).

    However, for a PoC in the States, it’s not a choice. I didn’t decide to fly out here and “check out” a white-dominated culture. I was born here. Raised here. This is MY country – and yet, every day of my life, I stand out, see media representations that do not reflect me – a constant form of mild discomfort (sometimes more than “mild”) with no “out.” I can’t just move away – because I’m American, I’d stand out as the “foreigner” anywhere else I chose to go (assuming I’m a PoC with enough privilege to leave the country, anyway). And yet I stand out as a “foreigner” (in some ways) in my own country, as well, and – unlike with a white immigrant – there is no way for me to assimilate enough to ever “blend in” here – because it’s my phenotype that sets me aside, and not the way I talk or act.

    And, certainly, there are plenty of other ways white folks can feel “other” (distinctions of gender, religion, sexuality, or class), but in no way that translates directly – not ever – to the experience of color in this country.

    So – this is not me saying “all white people have it easy.” But I do want to be clear that “that one time” standing out, racially, or “those few times,” or even “those many times” for a white person are not the same as an entire American life lived with color.


  7. Thanks for sharing this story. Wish I could see this play. I had a really good experience at the Bay Area AAFF last week – touched on a lot of similar stuff and I echo you, damn, does it feel good.


  8. Judging from a few of the comments here, it’s obvious that White Victimhood is now the favored political tactic that will be used to attack anybody that questions White Supremacy.

    It’s really somewhat pathetic and Orwellian: Claiming that White people are “victims” because of their race, when in fact, the very basis of White racial identity was/is a coalition of European ethnic groups designed to assert SUPREMACY over non-Whites!

    Nice try, but no cigar.

    And the situation of White Americans that go abroad and experience being a “minority” is not the same as that of racial minorities in the USA.

    Firstly, these White Americans are mostly Middle Class elites who have the time, resources, money, and privilege to jetset around the world in the first place.

    Secondly, these people choose to go abroad–and have the option of returning back home to the Good Old USA.

    Thirdly, some of these (White) people that go to another country will display a thinly disguised sense of arrogance over those backward, colored “Natives.”

    This is called the Ugly American Syndrome, and it is a legacy of the same attitude that Western Imperialists have displayed since the days of the British Raj.

    White Supremacy and Eurocentrism sadly are *global* phenomena as a result of Capitalist globalization.

    Being a White tourist or expat elite in another country is not quite the same as being a racial minority in the USA.

    And a final note regarding Hawaii, it should be recalled that Hawaii was an independent nation before the USA staged a “regime change” operation (i.e. coup d’etat) to overthrow the Hawaiian government in the 1890s–and to enable America’s eventual takeover of the Islands.

    (The USA even admitted and issued an “apology” of sorts for this coup d’etat in the 1990s.)

    This is the political basis of Hawaii’s assmiliation as an “American” state and why there is a significant Hawaiian independence movement on the Islands today.

    http://www.hawaii-nation.org/

    http://www.hawaiiankingdom.info/


  9. Ummm…CVT,be carful when walking around downtown Honolulu (King St., Queen St., etc) at night. Those aren’t men working the block down there.

    When I was in Hawaii, people assumed that I was Samoan.
    Usually, people assume that I’m Mexican.
    I had the same experience as you when I first went to Louisianna.
    Everyone was Creole.


  10. @ Lxy – well don’t you always have to steal my thunder on the history? I was getting ready to write a post all about how Hawaii ended up how it is, presently, but you have to tip off the readership in the comments. It’s nice to know that there are other folks out there anticipating my next moves – and aware of the underlying causes of present situations.

    @uglyblackjohn- Didn’t realize you were on the “racially ambiguous” boat with me. Funny how people will assume your race based on what else is around or what they would like to project onto you, isn’t it?

    @Kala – don’t know if you’ve been here a while, but welcome. When I was last in the Bay, I saw all the ads going up for the AAFF, so I have to admit I’m jealous you got to make it. Hope it was as centering an experience as mine.


  11. Depending on the time of year and my tan and the locale – yeah.

    (Meant to say that those aren’t “Women” down there.)


  12. CVT – Really interesting and heart-warming post. I've always wanted to visit Hawaii, and this just intensifies that desire. I'm looking forward to your future posts on this! Also, I don't know if you were planning to touch on this at all, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the word "hapa" with its history and appropriation (I recently read the following article and have been thinking about the issues it brought up). http://www.mixedheritagecenter.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1259&Itemid=34

    uglyblackjohn – I could be reading this wrong, but I am definitely sensing some transphobia from your comments.


  13. @ Miri – Maybe. But I had to have that fact pointed out to me by a local while I was there . He/She didn’t want me having any “surprises”. It was hard to tell the difference.



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