In 1989, Kati Kuroda played the Angel and Citoyen in the New York-based Pan Asian Reperatory Theatre’s production of the “Noiresque: The Fallen Angel.” The play by Ping Chong also featured Hawai‘i actors (from left) Norris Shimabuku, Mel Duane Gionson and Ron Nakahara. (Photo by Corky Lee)
In 1989, Kati Kuroda played the Angel and Citoyen in the New York-based Pan Asian Reperatory Theatre’s production of the “Noiresque: The Fallen Angel.” The play by Ping Chong also featured Hawai‘i actors (from left) Norris Shimabuku, Mel Duane Gionson and Ron Nakahara. (Photo by Corky Lee)

Acting is Her Passion — Onstage and Off

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In the 1970s and ’80s there erupted a remarkable celebration of local culture and identity whose echoes are still being felt today. Some called it the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” but it went beyond any easy label and overflowed its boundaries constantly and effortlessly. If you lived in it, you felt like it would never end and all things were possible.

Musically, there was Gabby Pahinui, the Sunday Manoa, Olomana, the Beamer brothers, Cecilio and Kapono and Kalapana. Culturally, Höküle‘a was sailing to Tahiti in the way of the ancients, and the contemporary hula of Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake. Politically, there were efforts to end the military’s use of the uninhabited island of Kaho‘olawe for target practice and the eviction struggles at Waiähole-Waikäne and other communities in Hawai‘i. The trio known as Booga Booga was making us laugh until we cried, and local actor-playwright-comedian James Grant Benton had just written his pidgin adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelf Nite O Wateva! Ed Sakamoto was busy composing “Manoa Valley,” the first written of his trilogy of Hawai‘i plays.

It was a righteous and inclusive celebration of all things local and a proclamation of what made Hawai‘i special, unique and different from anywhere else on the planet. And right in the middle of it all was Kati Kuroda, that rarest of all things: a serious character actor who was also a star.

In her performances, Kuroda was a force of nature seemingly appearing in every significant local theatrical production, stunning audiences with her range as a performer. She was funny, touching and salty and, from the very start, she was important. She could have been the touchstone of an entire regional theatre movement if that was what she wanted.

And then as quickly as she had arrived, she disappeared. When Kuroda re-emerged, she was in New York City.

“I was never looking to be the centerpiece of a movement. I was interested in developing my craft. In Hawai‘i, I was a big fish in a little pond, and I needed to find out where I stood in the bigger world,” says Kuroda. “I was 36 years old, which was late to make the leap, and my first job was as a Christmas elf in Macy’s Santa Land.”

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Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.

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