New Play Provides Glimpse of Life on Big Island

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The cast of “Southernmost” (from left): Alberto Isaac, Amielynn Abellera, Aaron Ikeda, Sharon Omi, Kimberly Alexander. (Photo by Kelly Stuart)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Mary Lyon Kamitaki’s new play “Southernmost” invites audiences into the home of the Chaves family, who live on the Big Island in Naalehu — the southernmost town not just in Hawaii, but in all 50 states.

Playwrights’ Arena is presenting the play through April 29 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. in Los Angeles.

Charlene (Amielynn Abellera), who is attending college in California, visits her parents, Wally (Alberto Isaac) and Becky (Sharon Omi), accompanied by her Caucasian girlfriend, Jessica (Kimberly Alexander), whom she plans to marry.

Becky is constantly on her computer, monitoring a volcanic eruption that might force them to evacuate. But Wally, who prays to Pele — goddess of volcanoes and fire and creator of the Hawaiian Islands — continues to plant his coffee trees, showing no intention of leaving his home.

Charlene, who seems embarrassed by her rural Hawaiian roots, does not speak Pidgin in front of Jessica. And while Wally expects Charlene to come back home after college, she has a very different vision of her future.

Kamitaki, who hails from the Big Island, is a graduate of Pomona College and USC’s MFA in Dramatic Writing program, where she was supported by faculty members Oliver Mayer, Paula Cizmar, Luis Alfaro and Velina Hasu Houston while developing the play.

Asked what sets the Big Island apart from the rest of Hawaii, she said, “I can’t really comment on the other islands in a generalized way, but I do think that there is a remote, undeveloped quality of the Big Island that makes it unique. Our volcanic activity also means that land development and real estate is a riskier business than it is in other places, which might be part of why the Big Island remains less gentrified and modernized than many other parts of Hawaii.

“I went to school on the volcano and grew up learning about the science of the volcano and rainforest and hearing the stories about Pele. When I was a kid, I didn’t take them literally, but many people I knew did and still do. The lesson I took to heart was to respect the land and how dangerous it could be — but also to be grateful for the unique, often superlative qualities of the island.

“That duality was important to me in writing the play, because the characters love their home dearly, despite the struggles it can present.”

Like Charlene, Kamitaki went to the mainland to study. “I left Hawaii to attend Pomona College because I felt like it was the best place for me to pursue my academic goals,” she explained. “I also wanted to experience more of the world away from where I grew up, because I always had a sense that there was so much that I couldn’t access from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“As for studying theatre, that decision came very recently, essentially during the final year of my college experience. I had always loved theatre, but I thought I should probably try to do something practical with my life. Clearly, I gave up on that idea.”

She began writing “Southernmost” in her first year of graduate school, in a class with Alfaro. “I told him I wanted to write a Pidgin play, but I thought no one would understand it, and even if they did, no one would be able to perform it, since there are so few Pidgin-speaking actors out here. Luis insisted that I write it anyway, and he found the actors to read it at the end of the semester. Since then, it’s been developed as my senior thesis at Pasadena Playhouse, and in Atlanta at the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition.”

The director is Jon Lawrence Rivera, founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena. Kamitaki described him as “very generous and inclusive at each step of the production process, including casting. I was involved in auditions and I could not be happier with the cast we have. Not only are they digging deep into the characters, but they’ve asked tough questions of me along the way, pushing me to make changes throughout the rehearsal process.”

Asked if the characters are based on her family, Kamitaki responds, “Loosely … with some big creative liberties taken. My parents have seen the play and will see this production later in the month. I am lucky that they are nothing but supportive. I think that they recognize that the story is really told out of love.”

Jessica notices that Charlene is a completely different person when she’s with her parents, which suggests that she hasn’t shown her real self until now. “Charlene’s relationship with Jessica is based on my experiences in a variety of contexts,” said Kamitaki. “There’s a desire to be open with the people you love about all aspects of yourself, but at the same time, that truthfulness is often not rewarded, or even understood.

“I think part of that is a universal aspect of growing up. You become a different person as an adult than you were as a child — but a big part of it is specific to people who come from cultural backgrounds outside of mainstream white culture.

“The code-switching [between Pidgin and standard English]that Charlene practices throughout the play only becomes apparent in the scene between her and Wally, when her deeper emotions break through. For me, that is one of the most crucial aspects of who Charlene is, the two identities she struggles to reconcile.

Cast member Sharon Omi and playwright Mary Lyon Kamitaki (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

“As I’ve seen this play read in various contexts throughout its development, I’ve heard that role read by actors in various creoles, dialects, and accents, but I think the code-switching always demonstrates the gap they are forced to bridge, between generations and cultures.”

The only cast member from Hawaii is Aaron Ikeda, who plays Bruce, a family friend, so the others had to learn Pidgin, Kamitaki said. “I did often help the non-locals with pronunciation, and so did Aaron … He helped the other actors learn pronunciation, rhythm, and vocabulary, and answered questions about the cultural environment of the play.”

While she didn’t write the play with a specific message in mind, “I wanted to tell the story of my home and my experience truthfully, without spoon-feeding it to an audience that would be unfamiliar with the world of the play. I thought no one would understand it, so I was surprised when listeners — initially other artists who supported the readings in graduate school— related with Charlene’s struggle to assimilate without losing her identity.

“Bilingual people, people of color, and especially those of us who have tried to make a life in very white industries and institutions, have talked to me about feeling a similar distance from their homes, and relating to the clash between Charlene and Wally.

“I do also often get questions from viewers/readers whose experiences are less similar to my own about what causes Charlene’s anger or frustration, or why she might speak Pidgin with her family but not with her **haole** partner. I hope those questions lead those audiences to become curious and learn more about code-switching, assimilation, and multiculturalism.”

Kamitaki would like to see the play performed in Hawaii, but for now there are no plans for another production.

Her new projects include “a couple of ideas very different from ‘Southernmost,’ such as a play about a group of contestants on the reality TV show ‘The Bachelor,’ and a play about a young woman who turns into a cat.”

Actor’s Perspective

For Omi, learning Pidgin was a challenge but a rewarding one. “There is a rhythm and flow to Mary’s language and I always know when I’ve left out a ‘fo’ or a ‘dat.’ While I was memorizing, I was hyper-aware of the musicality of the scenes, not just my lines but the juxtaposition of characters and the way the lines fed into each other. It made the language hard to memorize. But once that work had been done, it allowed a kind of freedom; you just let the language take you for a ride.”

She added, “My only connection to Hawaii is as a tourist and a great admirer of the culture and lifestyle. In the early days of East West Players, I remember seeing Ed Sakamoto plays and hoping that in my next life I’d come back as Hawaiian. This is as close as I’m going to get.”

Omi has worked with Rivera on various plays, including Houston’s adaptation of “Little Women.” For “Southernmost,” she said, “I went in and auditioned and was very happy to be cast. Jon is an amazing director. His understanding of character and story is bold, intuitive and fast. We spend the first week sitting at a table and figuring out what it all means, and then we switch into hyper-speed in the second week.

“The way he blocks and sets the stage is like sitting in the middle of a tornado; everything he does underscores the text work and carries us to another level of meaning.

“I have also worked with Alberto Isaac, both as a director and an actor. I am a huge fan of his in both realms and he is a joy to work with. He does both the drama and comedy with depth and precision. He’s risk-taking and innovative, and working with him is an exercise in being present for what he brings to the scene. I just try and engage and go with the flow. It’s better than any amusement park ride.”

Although not a “local,” Omi found that Becky and Wally remind her of her own parents. “Wally has the coffee trees that he’s obsessing about and my own father has hundreds of bonsai trees that he has nurtured from seedlings for the last 27 years. When I described the plot of our play, which involves the refusal of the dad to leave his home even when threatened by an erupting volcano, my mom calmly assured me that my own father would never do that.

“But after giving her a few moments to consider that statement, she sheepishly admitted that she could indeed imagine a scenario where my dad might refuse to leave.

“I love getting an opportunity to portray a character who reminds me so much of my own mom. I’m pretty sure my mom would step in front of a train for my dad, but she won’t let him get away with anything. God forbid he makes a right turn when she said ‘left.’

“And as a mother I relate to the pain of being separated from what you love more than anything in the world. I love that this mother never lets it get her down – she just keeps taking steps towards what she wants in her life. She’s courageous and lovely but unfortunately, in real life, I’m more like the stubborn father. According to my daughter, anyway.”

Omi’s other credits include “Tales of Clamor” at the Aratani Theatre, the TV shows “This Is Us,” “Criminal Minds” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” and the film “Eat with Me.”

Showtimes for “Southernmost” are Monday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m., with a 4 p.m. show on Saturday, April 20. For more information, call (213) 925-7631, email [email protected], or visit https://playwrightsarena.org.

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