Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Are you ready to return to real venues, not virtual ones? Are you ready to watch live theater and actors up close? I am, especially with a venue in downtown Honolulu like Kumu Kahua Theatre, a 100-seat theater that makes it an intimate and unique experience.
“Aloha Las Vegas,” written by local playwright Edward Sakamoto, will open at Kumu Kahua Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 25 and end on Sunday, Sept. 25. Harry Wong III, artistic director at the theater since 1997, is directing the play.
The story is centered on Wally Fukuda, a recently retired baker who is invited by his longtime friend Harry to move to Las Vegas to enjoy retirement at a low cost of living, just like Harry did. Wally fancies the idea of moving to the city where he and his wife, who passed away a year before, shared pleasant memories. Yet he is torn between that and leaving his home, history and an unmarried adult daughter behind in Hawai‘i. Harry and the supporting characters keep the comedy going, but Harry makes poignant points: how Vegas is not just about winning the jackpot but spending quality time with family — in his case, years ago with his elderly parents. He also mentions the regrettable changes in Hawai‘i such as how A‘ala Park used to be filled with families and kids playing sports but now frequented by suspicious activity at night and unfortunate homeless individuals.
According to the director, Harry Wong III, people of the Nisei generation feel the same way as Harry in the play. “We don’t have Liberty House anymore … places they helped build were going away in the ‘90’s,” he says. The changes mirror the ones in Wally’s life.
Beneath the comedy and casual pidgin talk lie the universal themes of facing crossroads, weighing major decisions, the importance of family and coping with loss.
When asked what the best part is about working at the theater, Wong answers, “the rehearsals.” Interacting and riffing with the actors while creating and experimenting.
I was fortunate enough to sit in on one of their rehearsals. The theater holds a jumble of utilitarian furniture and various planks and pieces of wood leaning against the walls, perhaps waiting to be transformed into sets.
“Do you remember why you’re saying the lines?” Wong asks the actors who play Butch and Deedee Fukuda, Wally’s son and daughter-in-law. He teases out the characters’ motivations and what their lines hint at. They also laugh a lot. At one point an actor moves a prop as part of his performance and Wong remarks, “You can’t move the couch out of the light.”
As artistic director, Wong’s role includes overseeing season selection and the annual playwright contest and directing at least one production each year. Aside from directing, Wong has also done production work and acting, including acting in a play written by the same playwright as “Aloha Las Vegas.” This one was called “The Life of the Land” and was featured at the Japanese Cultural Center in Los Angeles in the ‘90’s. Wong said while they were in Los Angeles, Sakamoto would join them at J-Town to sing karaoke.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Wong said people were just beginning to learn local theater. He knew Edward Sakamoto as a “living writer,” who is now the “Father,” or perhaps “Grandfather” of local playwrights.
Kumu Kahua (which translates to “original stage”) Theatre was founded in 1971 by graduate students from the University of Hawai‘i. Their mission is to stage local and underrepresented plays and Hawai‘i-themed community productions, whether historical or contemporary. The theater is also a training ground for local directors, playwrights, actors and production staff.
Wong was a board member of Kumu Kahua Theatre from 1989 to 1997. He is a founding member of Lizard Loft Inc., a Hawai‘i arts-producing organization and co-founder of the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival in 2003. He earned his master’s of fine arts degree in direction as well as his bachelor’s of arts in philosophy from the University of Hawai‘i, and his associate of arts degree from Honolulu Community College. He has directed over a hundred plays since 1989, including those written by local playwrights. Samuel Beckett and Eric Yokomori are among Wong’s favorite playwrights. “His plays are wild,” he says of Yokomori.
“I wanted to do a different interpretation of the play,” Wong stated about “Aloha Las Vegas.” He has already directed the play in 2002 and 2016, but different actors lend new experiences, interpretations and fresh perspectives to the 1990’s story.
Harry Wong III received the Ho’okele Award in 2015 — an award granted to leaders for exceptional service in the non-profit sector. They are usually granted to leaders dedicated to charity work — in 2021, for example, the award was given to leaders of a food bank, housing counseling program and veterans services. It was perhaps unusual for a person from an artistic background to be awarded. Wong remarked that he “knows why people hate us — it’s because we play.”
Five hours of work for them could mean channeling the spirit of a sloth. But why was the award granted to Harry for his work in the theater? Because art matters. We know this when we are inexplicably moved by a book or euphoric over a movie (I’m talking “Top Gun: Maverick”). Art is beautiful. It illuminates the human experience.
Edward Sakamoto’s plays, most of which are Hawai‘i-themed, have been staged in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton. He received the Hawai‘i Award for Literature in 1997, the highest literary honor in the state. Sakamoto passed away in 2015 in Los Angeles.
Kumu Kahua Theatre was closed for a season and a half due to COVID-19. They tried to do virtual shows and “It was painful,” says Jason Kanda, assistant director of “Aloha Las Vegas.” Actors performed at their own houses via Zoom; there was no audience. “The audience is crucial,” Jason says. The audience is very much a part of a theatrical performance. The actors are influenced and affected by the audience’s response, so that every show is different. The lines they deliver are the same, but the delivery changes depending on the kind of crowd watching and reacting.
The theater reopened in January this year, and they hope to remain open and continue their mission.