Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In the soft darkness of the Farrington High School auditorium, George Kon watches the actors on stage intently. The teenage performers who are drawn from all quarters of Kalihi are struggling with the blocking and dialogue of the play, but Kon’s tone never changes. His words are clear and crisp while he remains positive, upbeat and patient in his direction. This has been Kon’s life for the past 50 years as he has been an unwavering advocate for the importance of drama education in Hawai‘i. “There is a power in the theater that no other art form can replicate,” said Kon. “There is a live relationship between the actor and the audience that can be transformative. And both are never the same after that experience.”
Born in Pu‘unene, Maui, Kon aspired to be a lawyer until he attended a performance by modern dancer Al Huang, who would change the trajectory of his life forever. “I had never seen modern dance before, but I had done martial arts, and I thought to myself I can do that,” smiled Kon. “It was the first time I saw someone who looked like me up on stage performing Western art, and I was hooked.”
Kon began attending modern dance workshops where he was often the only boy in the class. “It didn’t matter to me. I felt like I had found my place in the world.” After graduating from high school, Kon entered Grinnell College in Iowa where he was mentored by groundbreaking choreographer Ric Zank. “I wanted a college that was landlocked and where I would be in the minority,” said Kon. “I needed to go somewhere that was the exact opposite of Hawai‘i because I felt I could learn something about who I was and what I could do.”
Zank would invite Kon to join a cadre of performers that had just won a five-year Rockefeller Foundation grant at the University of Iowa. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Kon. “Artists spend their whole careers dreaming of winning these grants but it would mean dropping out of college and disappointing my family. I had to make a very uncomfortable phone call to my parents but they never hesitated and they supported my dream.” Kon’s career blossomed as he eventually traveled the world performing across the mainland and Europe. Eventually, Kon landed in New York City where he joined the experimental theater wing of New York University’s drama department. “It was a perfect situation. We lived in a beautiful apartment in Greenwich Village, worked at NYU and wintered in Hawai‘i,” said Kon. “But something was missing, and we began contemplating making a permanent move to Hawai‘i in the seventies.”
Kon and his longtime partner, the late Walt Dulaney, returned home and immersed themselves into a theater community that was fragile yet filled with talent. Earning a special “suitcase theater” grant from the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, they toured the state bringing live theater to many classrooms. As an added benefit they met every single drama educator in Hawai‘i.
“There were many legendary teachers like Ron Bright at Castle and Jim Nakamoto at McKinley who were doing brilliant work,” said Kon. “But the importance of drama education was so undervalued by the decision makers. We wanted to be a part of changing that attitude.”
In 1980, Kon and Dulaney founded the Alliance for Drama Education, which acted as a non-profit support arm for drama teachers in Hawai‘i. Serving as go-fers, sounding boards and lobbyists for the broader theater community, they voiced the importance of drama education to everyone wherever they went. Because of their growing work with ADE, however, Kon and Dulaney soon realized that they had to be on O‘ahu so they searched for a school with students similar to the students in their Lana‘i workshops, children who harbored a love for wild, physical theater that was passionate and unrestrained. “Those kids won our hearts,” said Kon. “And the school that came the closest to Lana‘i was Farrington.”
Kon and Dulaney connected with Sarah Uejio and Sherrilyn Tom of Farrington and began teaching Shakespearean monologues to a small flock of students who were then challenged to demonstrate on stage what they had learned in the classroom. “We believed that theater could help Kalihi kids gain respect for each other and themselves,” said Kon. “And maybe by doing that we could help them change their lives for the better.” Eventually, Kon and Dulaney were invited to work with more teenagers using drama education to instill discipline, respect and courtesy in young people.
“At that time, the school couldn’t hold assemblies in their auditorium because the kids were too rowdy. They didn’t know how to act in a public setting because nobody had taught them,” remembered Kon. “So we were asked to expand what we were already doing in the classroom with an entire grade. People don’t realize that theater trains the performer and the audience to be more present, focused and empathetic. You cannot lecture about empathy; it must be earned.”
Within four years Farrington was able to hold assemblies and reopen their auditorium to school-wide events. What many had considered impossible and beyond the reach of kids in Kalihi had been achieved through the magic of the theater and the commitment of many caring adults. “Walt used to say that every young person needs an adult guarantor: someone who believes in them and sees their potential,” said Kon. “Putting these roughneck kids up on stage in the spotlight performing difficult monologues changed them. For many students it was only a short time in their lives but they remember that moment forever.”
Encouraged by the success of their early efforts, Farrington asked Kon and Dulaney to create a six-week advanced theater summer class that would take a select group of 45 actors even further as performers. Beginning in 1985, their original summer workshop would grow into a wide ranging, multifaceted theater company that today includes students from Farrington, along with Dole and Kalākaua middle schools. Eventually named “T-Shirt Theatre,” the non-profit specializes in producing original work created, performed and produced by the students themselves. Through its stage productions, professional artist residencies and extensive grassroots outreach, Kon and Dulaney’s passion project has trained over 10,000 students in acting, playwriting, stagecraft, directing and professional etiquette. Foregoing traditional sets and costumes, the students appear on empty stages in primary colored T-shirts leaving the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. In addition to mounting a full season of plays every year, the students have branched out and produced an anti-bullying, suicide prevention documentary film called “Kipuka” and are also publishing a history of T-Shirt Theatre over the past 37 years.
“Our story is like a fable, with each door opening one, after the other as we went forward,” said Kon. “When someone finds their place in the world, there is a power that emerges that is irresistible. A whole life can change in an instant: in school they start raising their hand; they don’t fear giving an oral report; they consider going to the mainland for college. Suddenly, they have confidence because they believe in themselves and they begin to understand that they can do anything.”
“Kipuka” is a 66-minute documentary movie that explores the impact of bullying, cyber bullying and teenage suicide as told through the life stories of young people in Kalihi. Directed by Jeremiah Tayao, the multi award-winning film was produced by past and current members of T-Shirt Theatre and is available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Mixing laughter with heartbreak, “Kipuka” employs an array of different viewpoints while offering hope and redemption at its conclusion. The title of the production refers to any small patch of land that is ringed by an onrushing lava flow. Like the kipuka in nature, there are many safe harbors in life that can provide us with sanctuary in times of peril if we only look.
Alan Suemori has taught English and history at ‘Iolani School for thirty years. He is the co-author of “Nana I Na Loea Hula,” an oral history of traditional hula resources in Hawai‘i, and the recently published children’s book, “Leilani: Blessed and Grateful.”