Kristen Nemoto Jay
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Darkness sets the stage. Costumes are prepped. Souvenirs are ready to be sold. A sold-out crowd waits anxiously for the stars of the show, Mark Kanemura and his sister Marissa, to appear. Then, as their father helps pull a fishing line to whoosh open the curtains, while a chandelier made out of cardboard boxes lifts above the stage, Kanemura appears in full costume, wearing half a white mask, a sleek black hat and cape, resembling the one and only Phantom of the opera. There’s no shortage of props, wigs and costumes as Kanemura takes the stage in the family living room, leading in the entire production. Choreographed moves, gowns designed out of sheets and wigs created from beach towels are integrated in the mix as the family of six cheers and participates.
The scene is an example of many nights at Kanemura’s family household in ‘Aiea, O‘ahu, while growing up. So much so that Kanemura was inspired to write a children’s book entitled “I Am a Rainbow!” available on Tuesday, May 9, which tells his story of love and acceptance for who he is, and sets an example for our young people to be authentic and true to yourself no matter if you fit into a particular mold that others want to put you in.
“I’ve always loved performing and been fortunate enough to have that safe space at home to do so,” said Kanemura in a Zoom call with The Hawai‘i Herald from his apartment in Los Angeles, California. The Castle High School graduate nods the similarities of the book’s opening pages, which features Kanemura and Marissa putting on extravagant shows, including him as the Phantom of the opera, while their dad, mom and two other sisters dance and sing along, throwing confetti and feather boas everywhere. “The book is definitely drawn from my own experience with my family on the couch, watching my sister and I put on these shows in the living room … I’d make souvenirs with the theme from the show and sell them for 25 cents, it was just so amazing and looking back, a great part of growing up.”
His family equally loved the theater and arts and would go see Broadway shows at the Neal Blaisdell Center when productions would come to O‘ahu, including his life-changing attendance when he saw the “Phantom of the Opera” at 10 years old.
“From that day on, everything shifted for me,” continued Kanemura. “I was like: ‘this is the world that I need to be a part of.’”
As his talents of performing on stage became a reoccurring theme at the house, Kanemura continued his love for the arts with many programs such as Hawaii Theater for Youth, 24-VII Danceforce and Diamond Head Theatre. In 2008 he flew out to Los Angeles when he was 24 and auditioned, gained a spot, then became a top sixth finalist of “So You Think You Can Dance” show’s fourth season, which led him to a multitude of dancing opportunities including a notable spot next to Lady Gaga on tour, and many of her music videos, for four years thereafter. After touring, Kanemura was busy modeling, acting, teaching dance, choreographing at dance conventions and even helped direct visual content for Selena Gomez’s tour.
In his free time, Kanemura would put on his own elaborate Instagram dance videos, filled with the same amount of confetti, wigs, props and costume changes that he would put on in his family living room. It became therapeutic for him, especially after a break up with his partner of seven years – the ability to move and dance freely was liberating, as it’s always been for him, and helped him out of a time when he was feeling particularly low.
“The song that was on repeat a lot was ‘Cut to the Feeling’ by Carly Rae Jepsen and it brought me a lot of joy and I just started kind of posting and sharing these little snippets of me dancing around,” said Kanemura. “I loved that it brought me a lot of joy but also love that it brought a lot of other people joy.”
In March 2020, when COVID-19 started to morph and take over shutdowns across the world, all of Kanemura’s dancing gigs and performances were put on hold. He had just signed on with Select Management Group at the time who had informed him about this possible global pandemic and uncertainty of what that may mean for the future but still asked him what his goals looked like. Among one of them was to write a children’s book, as he always had a “soft spot” for teaching youth and helping them learn, yet he didn’t know when that would even take shape.
Meanwhile Kanemura continued to post on his Instagram page during the pandemic, more so due to everyone being confined to their homes. He started with one dance song and invited folks to join him live. One turned into two, then three, and soon grew into a whole production number filled with wigs, costumes and choreographed dance moves. He “went back to his roots” of throwing on a production and loving every moment that it requires; taking him back to flashbacks of “geeking out” at Diamond Head Theatre when he’d sneak around backstage and be in awe of the lighting and props and costumes. He was happy to share that with his followers who were growing by the thousands with every post, as he was “getting back to the things that excite and bring light and inspiration.”
A particular dance enthusiast who joined in on one of Kanemura’s epic Instagram dance parties was the sister of someone who worked for Little, Brown and Company, a publishing group from Hachette Book Group, a leading trade publisher based in New York. She told her sister to reach out to Kanemura to see about doing a children’s book. Kanemura remembers the day he received the email, which read in the subject line “Children’s Book…”
“I immediately got teary eyed and was like ‘oh my gosh, what is happening?’” beamed Kanemura. He opened the email to confirm that they were looking to collaborate with him if he was interested in writing a children’s book, which he instantly said “yes!”
“It was unbelievable how it happened,” said Kanemura. “How it came through social media and through these pandemic dance parties on IG.”
While in the process of writing the book, Kanemura wanted to make sure it was authentic to his story of growing up and shared a message that he felt kids needed to know about themselves. He was mindful of his own upbringing and the lessons he learned about love and acceptance with the help of his family, and how many other children who may not have been so lucky. He wanted those who didn’t have an outlet or a support system to feel that within his book and imagined what a book such as that would have been like for him to read as a child.
“I Am a Rainbow!” features a young Kanemura dressing up and putting on shows and theatrics at home with his family, being happy and carefree. School, however, is another setting filled with isolation and bullying from his classmates just because Kanemura is “different” and tries to be himself. When his parents start to notice Kanemura not being himself, they gift him a rainbow cape, which is to remind him how beautiful he is.
Kanemura wears the cape and feels transformed into an invincible superhero. He takes the rainbow cape everywhere such as to Kaimana Beach, the Aloha Market and even to the doctor’s office. His only wish is that he could share that same feeling of love for himself with some friends. One day Kanemura notices a group of kids who look just like him – “fierce, fabulous and fun.” A girl named Aiko invites Kanemura to join them. He’s reluctant at first but takes a courageous step forward. With his rainbow cape on, he feels brave enough to do so. He then finally feels like himself outside of his family members with his new friends. Pictures show him dancing up a storm with his new pals. School becomes not so bad as he knows he’ll see his dance friends soon after the bell rings. But one day, Kanemura can’t seem to find his cape. It’s gone! Kanemura thinks he needs the rainbow cape in order for his friends to still like him only to be reminded by them that he’s the same person with or without it. Kanemura soon realizes this and embraces that same invincible feeling that the rainbow cape brought to him. He didn’t need it after all, “it just helped [him] discover the bravery, talent and magic that already existed within.” The book then concludes with images of Kanemura continuing to dance as he grows up, ultimately showing him as he is now, in his late 30s, strutting down a runway, dancing to the beat of his own drum and leaving the reader to know that “there is only one me, there is only one you, and there is space for all of us to dazzle when we embrace our true selves!”
“I wanted it to feel accurate and representative of the space that I came from and the people that I grew up around,” said Kanemura, who confirmed the authenticity of the characters portrayed in the book including his parents, sisters and even his friend Aiko.
“Aiko is a real person!” laughed Kanemura. “I met her while doing musical theater. She was one of those friends who I was like ‘Whoa! Who is this person?’ She had a way of making people feel seen and special. You could be around her and express yourself and she will be there every step of the way cheering you on.”
The rainbow cape was not part of his childhood experience, but Kanemura included it in the story as a tribute to his adulthood – as the cape became a regular part of his dance costumes on IG live. He wanted to incorporate the rainbow cape as a symbol that we’re all unique and invincible without or without a rainbow cape on our shoulders. Kanemura credits having his support group of family and friends who helped remind him of his true beauty and get through dark moments in his life, including middle school years when things were really tough for him.
“I was lucky because I had my older sisters who I confided in, when I told them that I just didn’t want to exist anymore,” said Kanemura, whose message to young people going through a tough time in feeling isolated or alone to find one person or outlet to confide in, and to know in general that he understands and sees them himself. “Having [my sisters] and then also my chosen family, my friends, people who I felt safe with and open to be vulnerable. As human beings, we cannot carry all this on our own. That’s why we have people around us to help us get through the challenges that life and this world can bring.”
Kanemura says he’s especially “lucky” to have had such supportive parents who were right there with him putting on plays in their living room and going to every performance that he was involved in. He’s quick to understand that not many households are like his. He hopes his new book also teaches parents that their kids, no matter who they are or end up to be, are individuals who will not always fit into the “box” that most of society wants them to be compartmentalized in. As a gay man, Kanemura especially wants parents to know that their kids will be “OK” if they are gay.
“Overall visibility is helpful for all generations because a lot of it is fear,” asserts Kanemura. “They think ‘is my child going to be OK? Is my nephew or granddaughter going to be OK?’ Which I get and understand but it’s like ‘Hi, I’m here, I’m surviving and creating my path in the world.’ They will be fine.”
In a moving tribute to the reader, Kanemura writes a message in the beginning of the book that if there were anything he could tell his younger self “it would be that everything is going to be okay.” He understands that there will be times that will make it feel really hard and challenging but reassures that things will get better. He emphasizes to find people to connect with and embrace who you are and eventually you’ll notice that the “love, acceptance and freedom you seek [has] been inside you all along.” He finishes the letter with “I am so proud of you!” – a message that our youngsters need to hear more than ever these days.
Kanemura’s beautiful book and message shines as bright as his costumes and dance moves on stage (or IG live). Illustrations are beautifully done by Richard Merritt. To pre-order “I Am a Rainbow!” or to get tickets for Kanemura’s book tour in Chicago (May 10), New York (May 12) and Los Angeles (May 13), go to linktr.ee/markkanemura. Kanemura hopes to do a book tour in Hawai‘i, which we’re all hoping will be very soon, and we’ll be dancing along front row center to see him!
Kristen Nemoto Jay is the editor for The Hawai‘i Herald. A native of Waimānalo, and proud graduate of Kailua High School, Jay received her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Chapman University and master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University. In her spare time, she teaches yoga and enjoys practicing as well. She currently lives in Kailua with her husband, toddler and baby on the way.