“Local Voices Speak Close to Home” by Kehau Noa

Posted: June 15, 2012 in Vol. 1: Spring Essays 2012

For two and a half hours, a small, cozy set at Honolulu’s Kumu Kahua Theater is home to the voices that echo from our own childhoods.  These voices?  They belong to the nine-member ensemble of “Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre,” breathing life into the celebrated and controversial book by local author Lois-Ann Yamanaka.

The story is one with which we are all familiar: growing up in Hawaii, with all the stigmas and stereotypes this entails.  The format is unique in that the poems Yamanaka wrote are performed mostly verbatim, but with an added twist in presentation that turns the individual vignettes into a cohesive story about a young girl growing up in 1970 on Big Island’s Pahala.

Led by actress Elexis Draine and supported by notable standouts Shawn Anthony Tomsen and Stephanie Keiko Kong, there is a high caliber of acting throughout the entire cast.  The actors’ dialogue effortlessly with the audience and each other completely in Pidgin, the unofficial language of local Hawaii.  Their mastery of the language and their characters is extraordinary, perhaps stemming from the fact that there is less of a sense of pretend than there is real life experience.

It is a difficult task to successfully capture both humor and anguish in one production, but in Yamanaka’s work, this is masterfully done.  The Pidgin language grounds the storyline as relatable, and the actors navigate flawlessly through wordy poems while still evoking strong emotional responses from the audience, be it painful silence or uproarious laughter.

The show is brought to life solely by its actors rather than elaborate sets, props, or special effects.   In no way will the show astound visually and technically.  Despite this, there are perfectly appropriate costumes and wigs used to expertly transform the small cast into a wide array of memorable characters.

“Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre” is more than just a book: it is a full experience that completely engages the audience and does not restrain itself to the stage.  Viewers will want to sit close to fully appreciate the nuances of the actors, but must be prepared for audience action and participation.  There is no hiding in this theater, and these characters will infiltrate both the soul and the personal space of audience members.

Viewer be warned – this performance will not be appealing to the faint of heart.  The explicit sexual content and copious amounts of swearing may be enough to have some shifting uncomfortably in their seats.  For others, it is nothing but a stereotypical, and humorously appreciated, refection of schoolyard banter from long ago.

Whereas some Pidgin plays approach island stereotypes through humor alone, such as the “Once Upon One Time” series of Lisa Matsumoto, “Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre” makes a stronger and more impactful statement.  The foul-mouthed “Titas” and the slightly spacey, kind old man “Bernie” are humorous reproductions of schoolmates and neighbors.  There are also the darker images of Hawaii: a physically and verbally abusive “Uncle” and a boyfriend “Jimmy boy,” the captain of the volleyball team with only sex on his mind.  This balance of characters highlights life in Hawaii, no matter how harsh, and does not attempt to provide the audience with a feathery, feel-good story in lieu of reality.

“Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre” will have the audience engaged from the start, and will resonate loudly among many.  It is not just a story of one girl’s adolescence; it is a platform to remember those unique voices from the “hanabata days.”  More than that, it is a delightful exhibition of local language, writing, and talent at its finest.

Written for Prof. Brenda Machosky’s ENG 200: Composition II


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