Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Maui storyteller Kathy Collins has been entertaining audiences for more than 15 years, but she owes much of her success to a girl she simply calls “Tita.”
“Tita,” Collins’ feisty alter ego and best friend, is often the one telling the stories in her native tongue, Pidgin.
“A tita is a local girl with a lot of attitude,” Collins tells a group of vacationers gathered around a campfire for the Makena Beach and Golf Resort’s weekly campfire stories. “I’m not really the storyteller — my best friend is, and she’s a tita. And, like all titas, she only speaks Pidgin.”
Using “Tita” to tell stories offers Collins a vessel by which she can share the local culture with her audience, often visitors from outside the islands of Hawai‘i, she explains.
“I really enjoy sharing the old legends and history, and I also feel strongly about Pidgin being a legitimate language that not only should be preserved, but should be evolving like any other language,” she says.
She explains that Pidgin is a creole language rooted in the sentence structure of the Hawaiian language, but influenced by the myriad cultures that arrived in the Islands after Western contact. Thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Filipino nationals came to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantations beginning in the 1850s. Because they spoke no common language, the groups of immigrants borrowed words from each other’s language and created a common language that came to be known as Hawaiian Pidgin.
“Dey took words from all da languages found on da plantation, mostly English, cuz dey was the guys dat was in charge . . . and den, fo’ put dem all together to make sense, dey took da grammatical structure of ‘ölelo Hawai‘i,” Collins explains.
Kathy Collins has traveled a long and winding road in her journey to become a storyteller. It’s a journey with Japanese origins.
Born to Japanese American parents, she remembers that the first storybook she was given as a child was a collection of Japanese folk tales, a few of which she still draws from today. Her favorite tale to share with audiences is the one about Issun-boshi, the one-inch boy who overcomes the limits of his stature to defeat a powerful oni (ogre) and win the heart of a beautiful princess.
Collins tells most of her stories as “Tita,” but every now and then will drop the thick Hawaiian Pidgin and tell stories as herself, a method she particularly favors when telling obake (ghost) stories.
“I love to do the classic Japanese obake tales I’ve learned. They are really scary and I find they are much more effective if I drop “Tita” and tell them as myself,” she said.
Collins says her Japanese heritage has helped her expand her range as a storyteller and performer. Born in Chicago while her father, Nelson Yogi, was attending dental school, her family moved back to Maui when she was 2 years old. Her father’s side of the family has roots in Okinawa, while her mother’s family immigrated to Hawai‘i from Hiroshima.
Collins actually began telling stories in forensic competitions as a teenager at Baldwin High School. She first stepped onto the stage as a freshman in Baldwin High’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” opening the show as Boq the munchkin.
“We were the first glimpse that all these kids (in the audience) got, and it was exhilarating,” she says.
Collins began her career in broadcast radio at the age of 17, shortly after graduating from high school, as a way of furthering her acting career.
“When I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, stage or screen roles for 5-foot-tall Asian women were few and far between. On the radio, I could
play any role I wanted,” she said in a recent interview.
Though hardly an issue for her now, Collins had trouble identifying herself as a storyteller when she first started telling stories in front of an audience. Despite having been a reporter for KITV, a radio personality and a comedian, she identified first and foremost as an actress. Her “Tita” act started as two-minute features she did “just for fun” as part of her radio show on KHEI in Wailuku. She would tell jokes and short stories in her “Tita-style,” including her own rendition of the “Night Before Christmas” fable, which became a surprise radio hit.
“Tita’s” “Night Befo’ Christmas” begins:
“Was da night befo’ Christmas, and all ova’ da place,
Not even da geckos was showin’ dea face.
Da stockings was hangin’ on top da TV
‘Cause no mo’ fireplace in Hawai‘i . . .”
It wasn’t long before renowned Hawai‘i storyteller Jeff Gere caught wind of the Maui talent and asked Collins to participate in his annual Talk Story Festival on O‘ahu, the oldest and largest storytelling celebration in the state. She told stories alongside master raconteurs from all over the state and a few from the Mainland.
“For a long time, I felt like an imposter. I just felt like I was playing this role, and I didn’t feel like I was a storyteller,” Collins says.
After a pause, she adds with a laugh, “I’ve come to terms with that now.”
Collins’ debut album, “Tita Out,” won the 2005 Hawaii Music Award for comedy album of the year. In 2010, she performed live at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Project in New York City. She has attended a storytelling festival in Canada’s Northwest Territories and is now a regular at the annual Talk Story Festival in Honolulu.
Collins has long since turned to the stage as a medium to reflect on the realities of her every day life. When her husband Barry Shannon, with whom she founded Mana‘o Radio 91.5 FM, passed away in April 2007, Collins turned her grief into a one-woman show, which she performed at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center two years later. She called the production “Comedy Death Jam,” an irreverent look at death and widowhood. On the show’s opening night in January 2009, she played to a sold-out crowd.
“This was part of my therapy session. It’s kind of selfish, but it felt like a really natural way to deal with the grief and realization,” she remembers. “Barry
. . . was my total support system when it came to storytelling. He pushed me to develop this “Tita” character in the first place.”
Her “Comedy Death Jam” featured appearances by award-winning musicians Willie K, Eric Gilliom, Steve Grimes and Dr. Mat, each of whom performed pieces about death.
“I gave them two criteria: It had to be about death, and it had to be funny,” she said.
In addition to her on-stage performances, Collins is also a regular contributor to Maui No Ka Oi magazine and writes a weekly column for The Maui News. Her “Sharing Mana‘o” column for the newspaper garnered first place in the column- or blog-writing category at the 2013 Society of Professional Journalism awards. And, she has a full-time “day job” — Collins is a program specialist in senior services for Maui County’s Department of Human Concerns.
“She’s one of Maui’s hardest-working, most recognizable personalities,” said Marnie Masuda, who teaches English at the University of Hawai‘i-Maui College. “A diminutive dynamo with more energy in her baby toe than most of us have in our entire beings.”
Declan McCarthy, general manager of the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, describes Collins as someone who has “enriched the stays of many of (our) guests by exposing them to Hawai‘i’s rich culture in her unique storytelling style.”
“Her weekly animated and energetic fireside gatherings have stirred the imagination of both adults and children alike. She provides guests with a different perspective to life in Hawai‘i, one that visitors seldom get the chance to experience,” he said.
When asked what her favorite part of being a storyteller is, Collins says her joy has always come from entertaining others.
“I like making them laugh, making them cry and making them think,” she said. “I really enjoy performing, whether it’s in a scripted play or stand-up, but storytelling is something I can do with just one or two people in the audience. It doesn’t have to be a theater-full to get that interactive energy.”
These days, Collins and “Tita” have become one of the most recognizable duos on Maui. When not performing on stage, she enjoys dancing (tap, jazz, hula, classical Okinawan), writing and other creative pursuits. She holds a black belt in Okinawan shito-ryu karate and has studied iaijutsu (Japanese swordsmanship).
Collins would like to write and perform another one-woman-show, possibly next spring. She said she has a couple of new characters that she’d like to experiment with, including a grumpy old Japanese man that she’s named “Ji-chan.”
Eileen Chao joined The Maui News as a reporter in 2013 after having worked for Honolulu Civil Beat and The Molokai Dispatch. Chao was born and raised in Orange County, Calif., and earned her bachelor’s degree in communications and English from the University of California, San Diego.