Dance Sensei Shares Memories of Kennedy Theatre’s First Kabuki Performance
Jodie Chiemi Ching
The last time Hawai‘i residents were treated to an authentic kabuki performance from Japan was half a century ago, in December of 1963. So, fans of the centuries-old theatre art are probably counting down the days until March 2 when kabuki returns to a familiar stage — Kennedy Theatre on the University of Hawai‘i’s Mänoa campus — for a five-day run with a final show set for March 8 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.
Kennedy Theatre isn’t Tokyo’s famed Kabukiza Theatre, but the vision of hosting kabuki performances at Kennedy Theatre was very much on the mind of world-renowned architect I.M. Pei when he designed Kennedy Theatre in the early 1960s. Pei also designed the East-West Center’s Jefferson Hall, which is situated directly across from the theater on East-West Road.
The theater was named for America’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy. In a 2001 column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, columnist Dave Donnelly noted that Kennedy Theatre was to have been named the East-West Center Theatre. However, just five days after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 — and five days before the theater was to open — the UH Board of Regents met in special session and voted to change its name to the John F. Kennedy Theatre, making it the first public building to be named for the fallen president.
Pei envisioned Kennedy Theatre as a venue that would support Hawai‘i residents’ growing interest in Asia — the histories of the countries that made up the region, their people and their respective cultures, including Japan’s iconic theatre art: kabuki.
Pei’s design of Kennedy Theatre included a removable hanamichi — a passageway that extended through the auditorium to the stage and used for important entrances and exits in kabuki plays. The Kennedy Theatre hanamichi was inaugurated as part of the theater’s grand opening performance of “Benten the Thief,” on Dec. 4, 1963.
Hawai‘i sansei Gertrude Tsutsumi, headmaster of the Onoe Kikunobu Dance Company, assisted with the choreography of “Benten the Thief.” In 2015, Tsutsumi, who is known to many in Hawai‘i by her professional stage name, Onoe Kikunobu, was honored as a National Heritage Fellow in Washington, D.C., by the National Endowment for the Arts. She, along with her top disciple, retired public school teacher Howard Asao, teach Japanese classical and traditional dance. Asao’s stage name is Onoe Kikunobukazu.
In Tsutsumi’s NEA interview regarding her style of dance, she said, “We get some influences from old folk dances and we use this inventory to choreograph modern things, but we keep very much to our tradition that’s based on noh and kabuki.”
Tsutsumi and Asao have watched the dance and kabuki culture evolve in multicultural Hawai‘i over the past several decades. The two sat down with the Herald to share their experiences, memories and knowledge of kabuki as a prologue to the upcoming “Kabuki in Hawaii 2019” performances.
Kabuki‘s Origins in Hawai‘i
Over coffee at the McCully Zippy’s restaurant, Tsutsumi and Asao shared many fond memories of kabuki performances in Hawai‘i before it became a part of the curriculum for UH Department of Theatre and Dance students and before Kennedy Theatre was even envisioned.
“There were visiting actors way before all this happened,” Asao recalled. “They would perform here locally.”
“Oh, those were travelling kabuki troupes,” Tsutsumi added. “They came [from Japan] as a troupe. There was a different program every night, for 42 days, in a tent, by the old International Theater [in the ‘Ä‘ala area].”
Kabuki troupes began coming to Hawai‘i in the 1930s and Tsutsumi grew up watching their performances. Several of her family members were dancers, as well. At the age of 8, Tsutsumi started her formal training in Japanese dance with Bando Mikayoshi, one of the early teachers of Nihon buyo (Japanese dance) in Hawai‘i.
“You know where the old Kokusai Theater was, Toyo Theater? In that area,” added Asao.
“It was a local person who promoted the show,” she said, prompting Asao to search his memory.
“Tsujita!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, Tsujita Kenzo,” confirmed Tsutsumi. “And he had a lot of costumes. Even when the university had the first program of ‘Benten,’ (in Farrington Hall, which was subsequently replaced by Kennedy Theatre) he loaned the costumes to them. He and another man who does the wigs, they went to help every night. They liked to do that.”
“Because of that, some of the dancers would teach dancing,” said Asao. “There was one person who would teach dance to children,” he added.
“And to local girls, too,” said Tsutsumi. “We all went to learn.”
“Nakamura . . . what was his name?” asked Asao.
“Umetaro,” Tsutsumi remembered instantly.
“Yea, Nakamura Umetaro. He would get the records being sold in the record store and choreograph songs for the children.”
Tsutsumi explained how actors moved up in the kabuki world.
“He (Nakamura) was very talented. But you see, kabuki is [all in the] family, right? So even if you have good actors who don’t have a family [in kabuki], you cannot climb up.”
“They are going to stay where they are, unless you are connected directly with a [kabuki] family,” Asao explained further.
“If you’re super, super, super good and talented,” said Tsutsumi, “then, they may adopt you.”
In his 1974 book “The Kabuki Theatre,” Earle Ernst, author and former chair of Kennedy Theatre, wrote: “Obviously, the Kabuki actor is one of the hardest working actors in the world. He is on the stage from six to eight hours a day, seven days a week, and most of his waking hours are spent within the theatre building. A new bill opens on the second or third of every month, and if a new play is to be performed, rehearsals must be scheduled between his performances during the day. If he is a star he may receive a month’s vacation during the summer, but if he is a young actor he is likely to receive no vacation at all. He is not as well paid as a film star, and any substantial increase in salary must wait upon his being given a new name and thus being promoted in rank.“
Ernst also wrote: “The actor’s dedication is based less upon a personal desire for fame and fortune than it is upon a sense of personal obligation to preserve its traditions.”
“Benten the Thief” at Kennedy Theatre
Tsutsumi had the honor of being the first performer to set foot on the Kennedy Theatre stage at its grand opening kabuki production of “Benten the Thief” on Dec. 4, 1963.
Ernst directed the English-language production about a young rogue who disguises himself as a woman from a high-ranking warrior family to carry out his crimes.
Onoe Kuroemon was invited from Japan to choreograph the play, which is considered a yurushi mono (reserved play) for the “Onoe house” of kabuki acting. Tsutsumi was asked to serve as Onoe Kuroemon’s assistant. Asao recalled how that came about.
“The University of Hawai‘i Kennedy Theatre opened in 1963. They had the press and media people come in for the ceremony. Dr. Earle Ernst, who was the chairperson for the theater at that time, called Gertrude and said, ‘Can you dance tonight?’
“So she had to lickety-split get something together and perform that evening. Onoe Kuroemon was invited to come to Hawai‘i through the auspices of Dr. Ernst to co-direct and choreograph the second presentation of ‘Benten the Thief.’ The first one was done in 1958 in Farrington Hall, the old theater on the UH campus. So he was invited to come and Gertrude was also asked to assist in the choreography with Onoe Kuroemon because we are part of the same school. Other different local teachers were asked to help
“In conjunction with this production, Dr. Ernst was able to get three grantees from the National Theatre of Japan who were also grantees to the East-West Center. So that way, he was able to get funding to bring them down. One was a specialist in set construction, another one was a specialist in lighting and another one was a specialist in painting. So also during that time, the three of them were asked to become part of the play, because they needed bodies. They were the torite (policemen).”
“That was a big production,” Tsutsumi recalled, noting that it was an authentic kabuki set. She recalled one especially memorable scene from the play.
“There is fighting on the roof and the roof collapses. There is a curtain in front with the men falling off. Now they have machines to move the parts, but before, it was people [who had to move parts to create special effects].”
Besides the impressive stage, the costuming also required a big team of people. The production’s playbill names over 30 people who assisted with costumes, make-up and wigs for that “Benten the Thief” performance.
“Kabuki in Hawaii 2019”
March’s “Kabuki in Hawaii 2019” performances will bring together descendants of the legendary Nakamura family, which is known for their onnagata (male actors playing female roles) stars. Nakamura Shikan VIII (not related to the earlier-mentioned Nakamura Umetaro) and his three sons — Nakamura Hashinosuki IV, Nakamura Fukunosuke III and Nakamura Utanosuke IV — will stage “Renjishi” and commemorate their name successions.
At a press conference to announce the coming production, Tobaya Sanemon, leader of the executive committee of “Kabuki in Hawaii 2019,” talked about why he feels the people of Hawai‘i will appreciate kabuki. Through translator Steven Silver he said Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i are cognizant of the importance of expressing gratitude by saying “arigatou gozaimasu” and by sitting in a seiza (sitting on one’s knees with legs tucked under) position. He said that is because their grandparents taught them about their culture. Sanemon said Japanese Americans made sure their descendants remained rooted in the culture of their ancestors . . . and people like Gertrude Tsutsumi and Howard Asao are among the Sansei who perpetuate Japanese culture in Hawai‘i today.
“Kabuki in Hawai‘i 2019” is sure to excite people of all ethnicities about the very Japanese art of kabuki while also strengthening the ties between Hawai‘i and Japan.