It had been a while since they’d attended anything at the theatre that could be truthfully described as “intense.” There had been tension in their recent outings –– Out Of Love and Ms. Blakk For President found appropriate balances of sweetness and drama –– but it had been more than a year since anything went as dark as quickly as Ua Pau.
“Lots of shouting,” Dania commented, as they walked out of the theatre.
“Well, it’s a family drama,” Eleanor agreed. “That’s what ends up happening when all the secrets come out.”
“Eh,” Dania shrugged. “I suppose so.”
“I thought they earned it, by the end,” Gwen said. “The shouting match in the first scene did feel a little sudden, but once you understand the stakes behind it, there was context.”
“Well, maybe,” Dania said.
“I don’t know, I’m on the fence about it,” she mused. “I get the play ending with a big shouting match. That’s standard procedure. But to me, it felt like every scene ended that way. They shout when the daughter comes home. They shout when the DNA test comes out. They shout when the dad finds out about the test, and when the mom comes to the cave, then when the dad comes to the cave…”
“It’s a serious drama!” Gwen said, defensively. “I appreciated that the stakes always felt life-or-death, even when the issues seemed comparatively small.”
“Well, I understand where she’s coming from,” Eleanor said. “If the show jumps from zero to 100 in the first scene, there’s not much space for the stakes to rise by the end.”
“I thought they did,” Gwen said. “It’s akin to a Greek drama style, where the sins have already been committed, so characters spend the play realizing their impact on the current day. Knowledge is the action from which there is no return.”
“Which is why I thought it was so interesting that the Uncle was the one who suggested the DNA test!” Eleanor added. “Considering everything that happens afterwards.”
“What do you mean?” said Gwen.
“I thought it was obvious why the uncle asked Stevie to do that,” Dania said. “Hawaiian pride, and everything. Know who she comes from.”
“Yeah, but consider what happens in the plot,” Eleanor said. “Knowing the ending, why isn’t it the father who asks her to do it?”
“It’s likely because the father’s definition of family –– ohana, to use the term –– isn’t as based on blood quantum as the uncle’s is,” Gwen said.
“On the surface.”
“On the surface, sure.”
“No, not sure,” Eleanor pressed. “For certain. The reversal about how the different members of the family define their ohana is the crux of the play, thematically.”
“Hm,” Gwen considered. “That’s an interesting point. It calls into question the father’s claims that everything he has done has been for ‘his family.’ Who was he actually talking about?”
“Native Hawaiians, I think,” said Dania. “Like, isn’t that the point?”
“Not exactly,” Eleanor added. “Hearing his plans for the hotel, the ones he reveals to Stevie…”
“Oh, you’re right,” Dania said. She rolled that scene over in her mind: what could have driven the father –– Alika, played with impeccable rage by Charles Timtim –– to so fundamentally alter his priorities? Who was it all truly for?
“That’s what I mean when I say they define ohana differently,” Eleanor continued. “The father chastises the uncle for holding to his culture, but in the end, the father’s entire goal, no matter how much he’s hurt himself to do it, has been the preservation of his culture.”
“Well, that’s obvious enough,” Dania said. “The thing that kills me about the play is how it’s so obvious that the dad and uncle want the same thing. They both want Native Hawaiians to be treated with respect and dignity. But their methods of achieving that are––”
“Oh my God,” Gwen added, suddenly. “It’s Two Trains Running.”
“The theme of the play,” Gwen repeated. “It’s the same as Two Trains Running.”
“You say that as if we’re going to understand you,” Dania grumbled.
“August Wilson,” Gwen explained. “The discussion at the center of his play Two Trains Running is whether it’s better, when faced with a social movement to extinguish your culture, to take the path of assimilating into the power structure to preserve yourself and your family in the long run, or to hold fervently to your culture by acting outside the system entirely.”
“That’s a lot of words,” Dania commented.
“She’s describing the conflict between the dad and uncle,” Eleanor said. “Is it better to gain financial stability by working for the hotel that took your land, or embrace that native pride despite it meaning that––”
“You have to live in a cave?” Dania finished.
“It’s exactly like Two Trains, except the restaurant is a daughter,” Gwen continued. “Which makes the DNA test result twist in the center of the play so much more interesting.”
“Exactly, that’s what I’m saying,” Eleanor said. “You’ll bring up August Wilson, but I’ll say the play is similar to In The Heights.”
“Wow, if there was a better example of how you two differ in thinking about art…” said Dania.
“It’s the subplot about Nina and her father,” Eleanor said. “The father gives everything up so his family has a chance to succeed in life. But if the mother and daughter end up not being what you hoped they would be, does that make all of the work useless?”
“Obviously not,” Gwen said. “Isn’t that the moral of In The Heights? Or at least part of it?”
“Sure, but Alani Apio might have a different view on things,” Eleanor said. “It’s a sequel to Two Trains, then: if the pathways of assimilation and separation have led to the same place, which was correct?”
“I’m not sure the play comes down on either side of the argument, though,” Dania said. “You could interpret it either way.”
“I appreciate that,” Gwen said. “Despite leaving the audience with a question to consider, rather than easy answers, it doesn’t feel like the ending is a cop-out, or unsatisfying. The emotional thread is over before Stevie’s final monologue.”
“But consider that final monologue!” Eleanor said.
Gwen was about to respond, but gave Eleanor a moment to explain herself. However, nothing came.
“Did you understand the final monologue?” Gwen eventually asked.
“Neither did I,” Dania admitted. “But I don’t speak ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi.”
“I think a large percentage of that audience did,” Eleanor said. “Or understood enough to pick up the meaning of the monologue. Even for the people who couldn’t understand the exact words, I picked up a meaning from it.”
“And what was that?” Gwen asked, doubtful of Eleanor’s interpretive prowess.
“It was something about keeping your ohana in your own way,” Eleanor said. “About how both the father and the uncle were wrong to entirely cut the other out of their life, but their methods for doing so were rooted in legitimate passion for their ohana, however they defined it –– I mean, basically what we’ve already discussed.”
“It would make the final beat of Stevie changing the music make all the more sense,” added Eleanor. “That’s her keeping the ohana and aloha alive in her own way.”
“Perhaps,” Dania said. “I mean, you don’t know if that’s what the monologue was actually about.”
“No, I don’t,” Eleanor said. “And I’m not about to ask the Native Hawaiian playwright to explain it to me, a Western voice. The play is so clearly intended for its island audience, I won’t walk all over that.”
“The universality of the story shines through, though,” Gwen pushed. “It does so because of how specific the issues are, how personal the discussion about upholding your family’s legacy is. Even if I can’t relate to the story on a subject level, I can empathize on an emotional one.”
“And just imagine how cathartic it is for a Native Hawaiian audience to hear,” Dania said.
“That’s all of Kumu Kahua’s work,” Gwen commented. “That the mission.”
“Still worth praising.”
“Excellently acted, as well,” Gwen said, recalling the bravura cast of seven. “Did you see that Charles Timtim has been in both of the other plays in Apio’s trilogy?”
“I did catch that,” Eleanor said. “I was worried that I was going to feel lost, not having read the other two plays leading up to this one. But watching him rage against his hotel boss –– you can sense the lifetime of struggle that he’s been voicing onstage.”
“Loved Stevie as well,” Gwen added. “It’s hard to play characters who are stuck, but you can hear the fight in all of her dialogue with the uncle and the mother.”
“There was an interesting parallel I enjoyed –– I guess it’s more in the writing,” Gwen said. “The father and uncle obviously feel like siblings, but so did the uncle and Stevie. Which felt important, for Stevie to have someone of her own ‘generation,’ in a way, to talk to.”
“And that gives the scene where everyone comes to the cave added tension, since the uncle is appealing to two different sorts of relationships,” Eleanor added.
“I’m not sure I understood Mona,” Dania piped up. “Or her subplot?”
“What about it?”
“Just…why it was included,” Dania continued. “We’ve been talking about the themes, and how you define a family, and the sins of the father. What does Mona and her relationship have to do with that?”
“I’m…not sure,” Eleanor said. “It’s an inciting incident. It gets Stevie talking with the uncle about her parents.”
“I felt like she’d have done that anyway,” Dania said. “And the fact that Mona doesn’t return after, like, the first third of the play…”
“I’ll have to consider that further,” Gwen said. “Maybe I can contact Apio and ask for the script. There’s so much to dig into here.”
“Right?” Eleanor said. “I haven’t seen the other plays in the trilogy, but I really want to, now.”
“I do wonder what mainland reception to the plays would be,” Dania wondered. “Considering how specific they feel for a Hawaiian audience.”
“There would likely be appreciation for them,” Gwen said. “Hawaiians live on the mainland, too. They’d come to see their stories.”
“I’m from the mainland, and I had a positive response to the play,” said Eleanor. “Gwen, you’re always saying that theatre is a tool of empathy. I’d argue this play is one sharpened tool.”
“Can’t argue with that” Gwen agreed.
Image Credit: Annie Lokomaika’i Lipscomb, Charles Kupahu Timtim, & Maile Kapua’ala / Photo: Kumu Kahua Theatre