Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Lee A. Tonouchi’s play, “Gone Feeshing,” which was first featured at Kumu Kahua Theatre in 2004, will have another run at the same theater next year, from Thursday, Jan. 19 to Sunday, Feb. 19, directed by award-winning director and educator, Taurie Kinoshita.
The premise of the play seems simple. Two brothers, Wayne and Grayson, go out fishing and have a chat. Done entirely in Pidgin, the play delves into the brothers’ relationship with each other and with their late father. The names Wayne and Grayson allude to Batman and Robin’s real last names – they both lost their parents when they were young. The play explores social issues, Hawaiian pride, “fake aloha,” sibling rivalry and more.
Wayne, who will be played by Alaka‘i Cunningham, is insecure about his position and circumstances. At 32 years old, he is the host of a fishing and cooking show on TV and is the older brother, yet he lives at home with their mother. Meanwhile, Grayson, who will be played by Brandon Hagio, a schoolteacher, tells Wayne as they are fishing that he is getting married and buying a house, showing he is stable and responsible.
There is a character called Da Ocean and when she appears, time shifts. The brothers are thrust backwards through time: suddenly they are teenagers again, and their father is still alive. Time jumps back even more to when they were children. Wayne feels that their father was hard on him, was never proud of him and favored Grayson.
The father character was inspired by Lee’s father’s friend Stanley Sakuma, who lost his life saving children from drowning.
Eighteen years after its initial run at Kumu Kahua, the play remains relevant. Kinoshita says, “Lee Tonouchi’s play has all the hallmarks of a great work of art: it’s both universal and specific (his play speaks to a specific community – ours, and it emerges as a response to our community; yet it also deals with universal concerns: a relationship between two brothers, a father and son struggling to connect with each other, our duty to our own community, the nature of heroism).” Kinoshita has directed over 120 critically-acclaimed productions in New York, London and Honolulu and has received awards for playwriting, acting, education and directing, including five Po‘okela Awards, Excellence in Theatre Education from the Kennedy Festival, the Francis Davis Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award and most recently, Meritorious Lecturer at Windward Community College.
Marcus Oshiro, a life-long surfer and lover of the ocean, will play the dad character. Oshiro is an attorney who has worked for the City and County of Honolulu and is former Chairperson of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, but he has been acting since he was a senior at Leilehua High School. He’s performed at Kumu Kahua Theatre, Los Angeles Japan America Theater, Neil Blaisdell Center and the Kona Surf. Oshiro feels honored to play the part of the dad. “I pray that my performance honors Stanley Sakuma’s life and family,” he says. “Life is short and we all have to work for a living. But, we all have a soul and a heart and we all need some passion or hobby or discipline that makes us better people or connects us to others.”
Connecting is what writer Lee Tonouchi does. When I ask what he feels most proud of about his work, he replies, “When people believe!” For example, people assume he has siblings because he captured sibling relationship well in “Gone Feeshing.” He says it is his job as a writer to make the characters believable. Though Tonouchi appreciates it when people tell him they enjoy his books, live theater is different because he can observe the audience’s immediate reactions.
Tonouchi was born and raised on O‘ahu — in ‘Aiea and Kaimukī, and spent his summers when he was little on Maui. As an only child, he spent a lot of time alone, reading, drawing and watching kung fu movies with his father at Empress and Golden
Harvest theaters in Chinatown. He was also influenced by watching TV shows and local comedies by Rap Reiplinger, Andy Bumatai and Frank De Lima.
Tonouchi graduated from ‘Aiea High School and never dreamed he’d become a writer since he had never read Pidgin in literature before. He had an awakening when he took English 256 at the University of Hawai‘i under Professor Rob Wilson, who taught “The Best of Bamboo Ridge” along with Shakespeare and Faulkner. Tonouchi read a poem titled “Tutu on da Curb” and realized that if they’re studying it in college, the Pidgin language mattered. He began to write his papers in Pidgin, extending it to his critical analyses, 30-page research papers, his master’s thesis, until he was writing everything in Pidgin. People wondered what kind of grades he received. Lee says “My motto always wuz, Anoddah day, anoddah A.” He graduated summa cum laude.
When I asked if he always wrote in Pidgin dialect, Tonouchi answered that Pidgin is a language, not a dialect. He says, “Dialect makes ‘em sound like one part of English, but actually Pidgin stay its own language.”
When he was a child, Tonouchi wrote in English as they taught it in school, but he was more fascinated by both his grandmothers talking together in Chanpuruu Uchinaaguchi, which Lee explains is a combination of Pidgin, Okinawan, Japanese, Hawaiian and English.
How did this playwright come to be known as Da Pidgin Guerilla?
Tonouchi explains, “When I wuz going UH da Ka Leo did one story about me cuz of my Pidgin advocacy. In da story dey wen interview my old professor Rob Wilson who said ‘Lee, he’s like a Pidgin guerrilla.’ My friend, she read that and she said, ‘Nah, Lee’s not ‘A’ Pidgin guerrilla, he’s ‘DA’ Pidgin Guerrilla!’ And so das how da name stuck.”
Lee wrote “Gone Feeshing” years before it first ran at Kumu Kahua Theatre in 2004. He’d entered it in a playwriting contest and it was rejected. His professor, Dennis Carroll, took the script and showed it to Kumu Kahua’s artistic director. The play became so popular that it got extended twice, and even toured on Maui. After this current run at Kumu Kahua, the play will run again on Maui.
After “Gone Feeshing,” Kumu Kahua continued to show Lee’s subsequent plays: “Living Pidgin,” “Da Kine Space,” “Echoes of dat Red Guitar,” and “UchinaAloha.” Other theaters featured his other plays: “Oriental Faddah and Son,” and “Three Year Swim Club.” East West Players, based in Los Angeles, performed an adult version of “Three Year Swim Club,” and it became a Los Angeles Times Critic’s Choice Selection. He edited a Pidgin dictionary, “Da Kine Dictionary: Da Hawai‘i Community Pidgin Dictionary Projeck.” His Pidgin poetry collection “Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son” won the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award. His children’s picture book “Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos” won the Skipping Stones Honor Award.
Most recently, Lee received the 2023 Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Association for Applied Linguistics for his advocacy of the Pidgin language.
Lee says, “Cuz Pidgin, das my language. Local culture, das my culture. My Maui grandma used to be so shame of her Pidgin that she hated talking when we went out. She always encouraged me for correck her. I write in Pidgin for honor my ancestors, for show people you no need be shame.”
When asked about his greatest achievements, Lee’s response is his “two wonderful children” who are already more talented at drawing and writing than he was when he was their age.
Kumu Kahua Theatre is showcasing its greatest hits for its 52nd season, and Lee joins other great local playwrights like Ed Sakamoto, Jon Shirota, Lee Cataluna and Lois-Ann Yamanaka.
Don’t miss “Gone Feeshing,” which Kinoshita says combines “nuanced, character-driven comedy with poignant moments of tragedy.”
“Gone Feeshing” will be playing at Kumu Kahua Theatre from Thursday, Jan. 19 through Sunday, Feb. 19 (No show on Sunday, Feb. 12). To purchase tickets, which range from $5 (students) to $25 (general admission), go to eventbrite.com/e/gone-feeshing-tickets-338561184617. To purchase season tickets, or for more information, call the box office at 808-536-4441 or visit the box office at 46 Merchant Street in downtown Honolulu, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Please wear a mask if visiting in person. Returning subscribers can also email their order to email@example.com.
Renelaine Pfister is a physical therapist and writer based on O‘ahu.