Kumu Kahua Theatre, affectionately known to Hawai‘i audiences simply as “Kumu,” this year celebrates forty years of staging plays about life in Hawai‘i— plays written by Islanders for Islanders about Islanders. It draws directly from the wellspring of our unique cultural assets and brings to life plays that reflect the richness and diversity of a way of life that is ours and ours only.
Kumu began as the unruly brainchild of Carroll, then a University of Hawai‘i professor, who started the theater with eight graduate students in 1971. From the beginning the agenda was clear: encourage local play-writing, produce plays set in Hawai‘i, favor plays unconventional in form and style. When they started Kumu, Carroll recalls, they hoped they would “eventually develop a touring theater where audiences of all ages and walks of life could recognize themselves and their problems, aspirations and fantasies.” In its first decade, Kumu not only stood at the vanguard of plays written in pidgin English, but also fueled a new body of dramatic literature, both comedic and dramatic.
Over the decades, Kumu staged a number of groundbreaking works. Alani Apio’s Kamau, for example, a critical and popular success first performed in 1994, was a powerful and moving drama that examined, without preaching, the moral ambiguities, complex relationships and relentless feelings of loss that face Native Hawaiians in contemporary Hawai‘i. Edward Sakamoto’s trilogy Hawai‘i No Ka Oi followed a Japanese-American family over several generations, from humble beginnings on a Kona coffee farm, through the postwar years and decades beyond. Sakamoto lovingly explored the ways that local Japanese-American families negotiate to hold on to ethnic and cultural traditions while facing the pressures of assimilation and material success. Chris Millado delighted theatergoers and especially the local Filipino community with his play Peregri Nasyon. Creatively staged with ritual, photos, letters and surreal dreamscapes, the play traced the lives of two brothers, one who remained in the Philippines and one who sought his fortune in America. Lee Cataluna’s Da Mayah made audiences scream with laughter: In this local-style screwball comedy, the not-so-bright mayor of Hilo is saved from blackmail and making a total fool of himself by Sandralene, his brilliant secretary. These four works represent only a fraction of the plays Kumu has produced: In its four decades Kumu has staged more than two hundred productions. And it’s still going strong. “Kumu Kahua will continue to get better at supporting playwrights and producing their work at a higher quality,” says current Artistic Director Harry Wong. “My hope is that theater will be seen as a necessary part of a healthy society.”