Acting is Her Passion — Onstage and Off
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In the 1970s and ’80s there erupted a remarkable celebration of local culture and identity whose echoes are still being felt today. Some called it the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” but it went beyond any easy label and overflowed its boundaries constantly and effortlessly. If you lived in it, you felt like it would never end and all things were possible.
Musically, there was Gabby Pahinui, the Sunday Manoa, Olomana, the Beamer brothers, Cecilio and Kapono and Kalapana. Culturally, Höküle‘a was sailing to Tahiti in the way of the ancients, and the contemporary hula of Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake. Politically, there were efforts to end the military’s use of the uninhabited island of Kaho‘olawe for target practice and the eviction struggles at Waiähole-Waikäne and other communities in Hawai‘i. The trio known as Booga Booga was making us laugh until we cried, and local actor-playwright-comedian James Grant Benton had just written his pidgin adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelf Nite O Wateva! Ed Sakamoto was busy composing “Manoa Valley,” the first written of his trilogy of Hawai‘i plays.
It was a righteous and inclusive celebration of all things local and a proclamation of what made Hawai‘i special, unique and different from anywhere else on the planet. And right in the middle of it all was Kati Kuroda, that rarest of all things: a serious character actor who was also a star.
In her performances, Kuroda was a force of nature seemingly appearing in every significant local theatrical production, stunning audiences with her range as a performer. She was funny, touching and salty and, from the very start, she was important. She could have been the touchstone of an entire regional theatre movement if that was what she wanted.
And then as quickly as she had arrived, she disappeared. When Kuroda re-emerged, she was in New York City.
“I was never looking to be the centerpiece of a movement. I was interested in developing my craft. In Hawai‘i, I was a big fish in a little pond, and I needed to find out where I stood in the bigger world,” says Kuroda. “I was 36 years old, which was late to make the leap, and my first job was as a Christmas elf in Macy’s Santa Land.”
Kuroda loved the energy and dynamism of the big city and she found a community of Hawai‘i-born actors who had made their home in New York. “I loved the frankness of New Yorkers. There was no wasted time. It was very different from local Hawai‘i culture, and I was constantly told to get to the point.”
Balancing off temp jobs in Manhattan corporate offices while running to auditions throughout the city, Kuroda slowly began to build a life in the theatre that was quirky, challenging and ultimately satisfying.
“Many actors think they will make it in two years and quit when it doesn’t happen, but it is really a long, hard climb and you have to be committed,” says Kuroda. “Show business is hard and if you can’t take rejection or criticism, don’t go into acting. You need a big ego, but you have to be in control of it or you don’t get jobs.”
Kuroda grew up in Makiki. She was a shy, private and wildly imaginative middle child of six who was terrified of performing in front of people. “I lived in a fantasy world where I made up stories and then acted them out. Whoever I played with had to enter that world. Children today live within their little devices, but when I was growing up, you had to use your imagination.”
In 1959, everything changed when her family moved to Kailua. Suddenly, she was an outlier with her black hair and brown eyes.
“I had to make an adjustment. I remember looking out into a sea of blonde hair and there were only five people who looked like me. And everyone spoke perfect English. I had to leave my secret imaginary life behind and learn to speak well because no one could understand me.”
In some ways, Kuroda was beginning her training in acting, as she began listening intently to how her classmates spoke and mimicking their speech. “From listening to how people talked, I began to watch how they moved and dressed and behaved. That’s when I became a character actress.”
Kuroda ended up at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, where she studied fine arts and theatre and was mentored by longtime drama professors Tamara Hunt, the late Glenn Cannon and Terrence Knapp, who saw something more in Kuroda than she saw in herself. “For a long time, I was only focused on the technical side of theatre — building sets and designing costumes — but, eventually, I began to act, and once I stepped on the stage, I never left.”
Knapp insisted that Kuroda go even further in his advanced acting class, casting her in lead roles such as Phaedra, the deadly Greek dragon mother who falls in love with her stepson in the Euripidean drama, “Hippolytus.” “I kept arguing with him that I wasn’t ready for the part and he kept pushing me out there and demanding that I reach for a higher standard. At the end, something happened in me and it clicked: I understood what he was saying and I knew where he wanted me to go. Tragedy comes from down deep in your genitals, but you have to control it or it turns into chaos.”
Upon graduating in 1971, Kuroda began working at the University Laboratory School, where she taught fine arts and acting and mounted several productions a year in whatever performing space she could find on the small campus.
“There is a magic in the theatre that stretches back to ancient times. When the lights drop, you are there in the darkness amongst all these strangers and then the play begins and, slowly, you become a community that laughs and weeps together. There is nothing like it,” she says. “It goes back to the very roots of early mankind. The story of the hunt by fire and light. Whatever theatre space you use, no matter how small, is a sacred space. The audience and the actors are one, and as an actor, you take the audience with you on a journey, and at the end of that journey, everyone is transformed.”
In addition to her teaching duties, Kuroda began to act in local productions, breathing fire and ice into a nascent and moribund Hawai‘i theatre scene that had never seen anything quite like her. For her admirers she represented the possibilities of an emerging, vibrant regional theatre that could tell the stories of Hawai‘i in an authentic, meaningful and eloquent way without having to sacrifice its distinctive voice. But Kuroda wanted more, and by 1983 she was gone in search of new challenges in a bigger world.
“I was never interested in using acting to become rich and famous. I was interested in realizing my full potential as an artist, and that’s what New York represented,” says Kuroda. She played a variety of roles stretching from the classical to the contemporary as a performer in the New York Shakespeare Festival, Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and the nationally renowned Acting Company. Her career culminated with “Sakura, The Bandit Princess,” a one-woman show written just for her with Kuroda inhabiting many different characters who spanned various genders, ages and personalities — all within a single performance. The production won critical raves and took Kuroda all over the country and then the world.
“For me, the play process is richer and more demanding than film because you develop a relationship with the audience throughout the run of the show,” Kuroda explained. “In movies, you either get the cut or you don’t. In theater, you take the energy of the audience and return it, and that connection just grows and never ends.”
Despite all of her individual success, Kuroda is still happiest telling human stories that go beneath the smooth surface of life. “I still watch people and play characters just like when I was a kid. Most actors want to play everything because we get pigeonholed most of the time. People see me as a comedienne, but I love doing ‘heavy’ work. Everybody has pain and joy in their lives and my job is to reveal those emotions and make them accessible to the audience.”
At age 70, Kuroda is still learning her craft and growing as a performer as she challenges herself to evolve as an artist. “To be an actor is to be an exhibitionist. You’ve got to be totally ballsy and unafraid. You’ve got to dive into the deepest recesses of your own life experiences and bring that knowledge to the surface and show it without fear in order to bring your character to life,” says Kuroda. “Many actors are afraid to go there. Some are natural and can do it without effort; others can get there because they have good technique. Most can’t do it. Controlling the openness is the key, and it’s not pretty. Your breathing changes. Everything changes, but you have to go forward through your fears.”
In 2004, Kuroda returned to Hawai‘i after breaking her ankle in a serendipitous accident. By chance, her old job at the UH Lab School was available again and she resumed teaching, armed this time with the knowledge of a bigger world that she could now share with her students. When she looked out among the faces of the children, she saw memories of herself at a young age, trying to find her own voice in a new world.
“Acting is my passion. I’ll be poor the rest of my life, but a lot of people have no passion. They follow the routine, but they miss out on life. But passion can also be hard, because, sometimes, society doesn’t understand it.”
Among peers like veteran local actor and storyteller Karen Yamamoto Hackler, Kuroda remains an inimitable presence that elevates the quality of every production she joins.
“She has a gift for breathing special life into each of her characters,” says Yamamoto Hackler. “All of her roles are memorable! I experience a child-like anticipation whenever I go to see shows Kati is cast in. I’m always excited to see the choices she’s made for the roles she tackles.”
In playwright Lee Cataluna’s recent summer hit at Kumu Kahua Theatre, “Uncle’s Regularly Scheduled Garage Party is CANCELLED Tonight,” Kuroda appears unexpectedly in the middle of the play. Under her ferocious gaze, the audience erupts into a rising tide of nervous laughter, then recedes into an uncomfortable pall of silence awaiting her next move. Kuroda is only one part of a palette of actors, each taking their turn in the spotlight to move the narrative forward. But it is her arrival that awakens the drama to its full potential.
“When I’m acting, I’m completely in another world. For me, it’s make believe time again. I can’t wait to get out there and play,” she says. “In some ways I never grew up and there is still this kid in me. And when you get a good, well-written play, it’s like having butter in your mouth.”
Since retiring from teaching in 2014, Kuroda has also become the caregiver of her 97-year-old mother, who is still very sharp, but increasingly frail.
“Caregiving has taught me patience. When you’re young, you think you’ll never grow old. But now I understand that my time will come, too. Now I don’t take any day for granted. Taking care of my mother teaches me to calm down and not get nasty. It’s the opposite of New York,” Kuroda says. “I’m at a stage in my life where the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent. I’m bitchy some days and sometimes my mother and I argue, and it’s not perfect . . . but I’m there. Now I gotta worry about her: what doctor’s appointment do we have to go to, where is her walker and which Depends should I buy. Everything was about me in New York, and now I have to think of her.”
Kuroda pauses as she gathers herself before finishing her thoughts. “Caregiving is a lot like acting: You’re forced to go down deep into your core and learn things that you need to learn and bring these lessons to the surface and into your life. It’s teaching me what I need to learn the most. It’s teaching me about love.”
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.