Darrell H.Y. Lum’s Play at Kumu Kahua Theatre is Both Funny and Sensitive
In our lives, somewhere . . . sometime . . . we’ve all known someone like “Bobo.” Someone mentally handicapped, but sweet and pure-hearted. And maybe even a little tricky-smart in his or her own way.
It was that kind of person that inspired Darrell H.Y. Lum’s 1972 short story, “Da Beer Can Hat” — now a play — which is in its final weekend at Kumu Kahua Theatre. If you haven’t seen it yet, go see it! The play closes this Sunday, June 23, with only a 2 p.m. matinee performance that day.
“Da Beer Can Hat” draws the audience into Bobo’s world. It is a vulnerable world, but one he tries to make the best of.
Brandon Hagio is excellent as Bobo. Hagio is convincing and consistent in his role throughout the play, selling newspapers with his compassionate best friend, Junior (Ku‘umakaonaona Bailon), near Ching’s Store, where storeowner Mr. Ching (Daryl Bonilla) keeps an eye on the two boys while tending to his mom-and-pop store. When their newspaper sales slow down, Bobo and Junior occupy themselves playing marbles, or re-enacting their favorite scenes from 50th State Wrestling, or just letting their young imaginations run wild.
Their time together gives Bobo a break from his sad home life and his angry and abusive single father, Sonny Lopez, played outstandingly by former state representative Marcus Oshiro. Sonny, who is out of work, scratches out a living collecting and returning beer bottles to their distributor . . . which is why he demands that Bobo give him all his newspaper earnings.
But even that is not enough for Sonny. He wants to send Bobo off to Lāna‘i to pick pineapples, but Bobo doesn’t want to go. Although he endures harassment and physical and emotional injury, from not only his father, but bullies as well, he rarely complains about anything, preferring to live in his own world of wrestling stars and marbles. Junior tries to help his friend through the rough patches in his life and stands up for Bobo when people pick on him.
In an email interview with the Herald, playwright Darrell H.Y. Lum said he used to see his wife’s former student selling papers near the freeway.
“He was special needs, but was good at what he did: capable, happy and street-wise,” he recalled.
Lum’s wife, a former special needs teacher, related that the boy would sometimes come to school with a ski cap pulled over his head to hide a very short haircut, which was how his parents punished their children.
“That image stuck in my mind, because in the ’70s, I had long hair, so it seemed particularly cruel to do that to a kid. The story comes out of exploring that idea,” explained Lum.
Darrell Lum originally wrote “Da Beer Can Hat” as a short story in 1972. It was included in “Sun,” Lum’s first book of short stories and drama, which Bamboo Ridge Press published in 1980. “Sun” also included “Primo Doesn’t Take Back Bottles Anymore” and the “Purie Bumboochas.” He incorporated some of the dialogue from those stories in “Da Beer Can Hat.”
The husband-and-wife team of Karen and Denny Hironaga make their directorial debut with “Da Beer Can Hat.” Both are veterans of Kumu Kahua Theatre productions, having previously served as actors and as technical crew members. Lum shared that when one of the actors had to sit out one night’s performance due to an accident, Karen Hironaga slid right in and played the role.
Karen and Denny have put together a lively and funny and yet deeply sensitive play that employs all our senses and prompts us to think about the Bobos we may know in our own lives and how we treat them.
Lum said they put together an “exceptional” cast and present the play in a way that allows the audience to “discover different aspects that resonate with their own lives.”
He said it’s up to the audience to decide whether the play is relevant today.
“We tend to gloss over and romanticize the past the farther we get away from it. The good old days might not have been so good,” he said. “It was a struggle for those who lived through it and continues to be a struggle for all, special needs and not special needs,” he said.
Denny and Karen initially asked Lum to write a screenplay based on “Da Beer Can Hat” story, hoping to produce a film version of the story. Lum declined, but said he would work on writing a stage play, something he was experienced at doing, having written seven plays with Kumu Kahua Theatre and Honolulu Theatre for Youth since the mid-’70s.
Lum said he started buckling down and working on the script for the stage play in the spring of 2017. Some 16 drafts later, he had a script for Kumu’s artistic director, Harry Wong III, to review.
“He must’ve liked it, and wanted to do it as the last play of this season,” said Lum.
“I’m lazy; I write slow,” Lum conceded. “I once asked [the late Hawai‘i-born playwright] Ed Sakamoto how long it took him to write one of his plays and he said, ‘Around two weeks.’ What?! Of course, he explained that he had been thinking about the characters for years before that.
“For me, it was trying to figure out how to depict Bobo’s strengths, what was he good at, and how do I show that on stage. For me, it was using wrestling as a metaphor for his real–life battles,” Lum explained.
Even at that, “the writing is never done,” Lum said. “When I see it in production, my first impulse is to change stuff, so now I’m on version 24!” he joked. “I think there’re always ways to make something better for next time,” he added.
Still, he knew he had nailed the basic script when he had finally “integrated the story with a way to get into the mind of Bobo,” Lum explained. “He faces real battles with bullies, his father and the world. His love of wrestling supplies a kind of reality that helps him cope. He ‘wrestles’ with the challenge before him and trusts what he knows to be true. In much the same way that we, as local kids, really believed that 50th State Wrestling was real, even as others were telling us that it was fake. We all have to struggle with figuring out what is real and what is fake. Hopefully, the play depicts a particular era, but also goes beyond nostalgia and tells the story of two boys and the community around them. A simple story of our complex lives in Hawai‘i.”
One of Lum’s favorite lines from the play comes when Junior’s mother asks him in a kind and gentle manner how he’s going to solve a dilemma he faces. “What are you going to do about it?” she asks.
“She asks him to solve the problem,” emphasized Lum. “She doesn’t tell him what to do, but expects him to figure things out for himself and Bobo.” And Junior does.
“Somehow, we managed to ‘take care,’ and I hope that local ethic will prevail,” Lum reflected.
“We gotta take care each other without having rules, regulations, laws or protests to understand our responsibility to each other living on an island. We no need follow da mainland. We already know how to ‘take care’ if we just trust ourselves to do it.”
There are only three more opportunities to catch “Da Beer Can Hat” at Kumu Kahua Theatre: Friday (tonight) and Saturday night at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. Call the box office at (808) 536-4441 between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., or order tickets online at kumukahua.org. Kumu Kahua Theatre is located at 46 Merchant St., at the corner of Merchant/Bethel streets in downtown Honolulu.