Theatre in Hawaiʻi: An “Illumination of the Fault Lines” of Asian American Theatre

by Jenna Gerdsen
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 34, Number 2 (Spring 2022)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

When I left Hawaiʻi for college on the continent, I was in for quite a shock. As a mixed Asian woman born and raised in Hawaiʻi, I was used to being a part of a dominant majority. When I arrived in Washington, I lost the comforts that came with being a part of a majority and was eager to find an Asian community. I hesitantly joined the Asian American Student Association. Though I had never identified as Asian American, I assumed the group could replicate some of the comforts of home. Yet I did not feel at ease. I felt distant from the other students. My Hawaiian Pidgin and love for Hawaiian plate lunches set me apart. When someone suggested I check out the Hawaiʻi Club, I began to realize that Asianness looked and sounded differently outside of Hawaiʻi.

I share this personal anecdote to illustrate that stories have triggered discussions around categorical schemas, representation, and historical fissures between Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. In The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies: Autonomy and Representation in the University, Mark Chiang asserts Blu’s Hanging, the controversial novel by popular Japanese writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka, challenged fundamental assumptions of Asian American Studies and demanded new theorizations of Asian American cultural politics.[1] At the 1998 Association for Asian American Studies conference, Yamanaka received a fiction award, but a motion to revoke the award was initiated due her stereotypical depictions of Filipinos. The novel demonstrated the dominance of East Asians in Hawaiʻi and the prevalence of an ethnic hierarchy. In Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawaiʻi, Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Okamura assert that East Asians of Hawaiʻi often use “Local,” the pan-ethnic label unique to Hawaiʻi, to build a Pan-Asian nationhood and obscure Native Hawaiian history.[2]

In less dramatic fashion, plays by Asian and Hawaiian playwrights of Hawaiʻi have reignited the urgency to reconceptualize Asian Americanness. Eager to assimilate in the continent, I turned to Esther Kim Lee’s A History of Asian American Theatre. Before reading her work, I assumed that theatre of Hawaiʻi would be a part of her study. I learned that merging theatre of Hawaiʻi with Asian American theatre comes with complications, just like my attempts to blend in at student gatherings. Lee made the strategic decision to limit her foundational study to the continent. She stated,

In my view the inclusion of Hawaiʻi would necessitate a shift in the paradigm of Asian American theatre history, and the nature of this shift would hinge on whether Asian American theatre is considered as part of the larger Asian diaspora of theatre. Indeed, as Josephine Lee points out, the inclusion of Hawaiʻi in Asian American theatre history would “illuminate the fault lines” in how we, as theatre historians, have imagined Asian American culture.[3]

Just as I was surprised that Esther Kim Lee’s study on Asian American theatre excluded theatre of Hawaiʻi, undergraduate students are often disappointed when Asian American theatre classes do not include Pacific Islander theatre. For instructors of Asian American theatre, the question becomes how to represent equitably both Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders without making them a monolith. Pedagogy should follow the recommendations of scholars such as J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Lisa Kahaleole Hall who argue that the label “Asian American Pacific Islander” privileges the experiences of Asian Americans over Pacific Islanders.[4]

Despite its use in social justice conversations, “inclusion” in this context is an act of settler colonialism. The absorption of the Hawaiian Islands within the US empire and Americanist scholarship has obscured the identities, cultures, and histories of the various peoples of Hawaiʻi. Due to the illegal overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani that led to the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, Hawaiʻi has long been associated with the United States, been regarded as a strategic military base, and been a profitable appendage to the empire. The Hawaiian Islands have also been an appendage in a scholastic context. Information regarding theatre in Hawaiʻi has historically been included within Asian American theatre.

The inclusion of theatre of Hawaiʻi in Asian American theatre demonstrates that the United States has played a large role in how we have come to understand Asianness. In the early 1960s, the label and genre “Asian American” were created as a way to assert that Asians have been essential members of the United States and replace the problematic descriptor of “Oriental,” which reduced Asians to foreign objects.[5] While many Asians of the continent were determined to demonstrate a sense of belonging in the United States, other Asians in Hawaiʻi were determined to demonstrate a sense of alienation from the United States. Plays written by Asians from Hawaiʻi that explore the realities of living in Hawaiʻi should be separate from but in conversation with Asian American theatre.

My work is a direct response to Lee, and is also informed by the dissertations of Hawaiʻi-based scholars and theatre practitioners Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker, Sammie Choy, and Stefani Overman-Tsai that call for theatre of Hawaiʻi to be recognized as its own form and examined outside of an Asian Americanist lens.[6] I interviewed Asian and Hawaiian theatre artists and educators born and raised in Hawaiʻi to determine why theatre of Hawaiʻi should be studied separately from Asian American theatre. I concluded that it is debatable whether Hawaiʻi can be considered a part of the larger Asian diaspora considering its indigenous history and cross-racial alliances developed on sugarcane and pineapple plantations.

I assert that dramatic literature of Hawaiʻi, particularly the work of Hawaiian-Samoan playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, makes these fissures visible and audible. Her large body of work dramatizes interracial alliances and conflicts of Hawaiʻi. This essay features an excerpt of an interview I conducted with Kneubuhl on July 22, 2019. Our conversation about her work and its categorization demonstrates that the foundations and future of Asian American theatre rest on and are guided by understanding the nuances of Asian and Pacific Islander identities. I use my conversation with Kneubuhl to claim that it is possible and necessary to separate Asian American and Pacific Islander dramaturgies while still keeping them in conversation. Because some of Kneubuhl’s work has represented both Hawaiians and Asian settlers and their alliances and conflicts, her work has been categorized under several labels, including Asian American theatre and Pacific Islander theatre. In our conversation, Kneubuhl revealed that she embraces all of the labels assigned to her work because that allows her to more accurately characterize individual plays. Kneubuhl’s body of work resists exclusive characterization because each play’s themes, setting, and characters vary greatly.

With Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in both Hawaiian culture studies and theatre, Kneubuhl bridges Hawai‘i state archives, community theatre, and the Hawaiian Renaissance movement. Kneubuhl’s work has been locally, nationally, and internationally recognized. She won the Hawai‘i Award for Literature, and her plays have been commissioned and performed in Hawai‘i, the continental United States, Asia, and Britain. When Kneubuhl emerged as one of Hawai‘i’s representative playwrights during the 1980s and 90s, she was one of the only Native Hawaiian playwrights active in Hawai‘i’s theatre scene. Today, she continues to represent Native Hawaiians and produces work that teaches Hawaiian history and celebrates Hawaiian culture from a Hawaiian perspective and advocates for Hawaiian sovereignty. Kneubuhl has been a major contributor to the repertoire of Kumu Kahua Theatre, the institutional home of Local theatre. The genre demonstrates how those who identify as Locals, a wide umbrella term unique to Hawai‘i that includes Native Hawaiians and other ethnic immigrant groups who descended from sugarcane and pineapple plantation workers, regard themselves vis-à-vis Hawai‘i’s plantations. Her work is informed and inspired by both the Hawaiian Renaissance movement and the plurality of Local culture.

Inspired by those in the Hawaiian community who were reclaiming and reviving Hawaiian culture during the early 1970s, several of Kneubuhl’s plays retell Hawaiian women’s history through a contemporary, retrospective lens. Kneubuhl’s highly regarded historical pageant play January 1893 replays the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and allowed the Honolulu community to revisit a pivotal moment in Hawai‘i’s history. Written, produced, directed, and sponsored by Hawaiian activists and artists, January 1893 represented the mission of the Hawaiian Renaissance to revive Hawaiian history and culture on a state and national level. The play debuted in 1993 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the overthrow. Staged as an elaborate parade, January 1893 is still considered to be one of the most theatrically ambitious nonprofessional productions ever staged in Hawai‘i. January 1893 was performed on and around the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace, the home of the Hawaiian monarchy and the site of Lili’uokalani’s house arrest after the overthrow. As an anniversary event, the production exemplified all that remained after the annexation: ignorance and amnesia around the event, a pan-ethnic solidarity between Hawaiians and other ethnic groups in Hawai‘i, and a desire to reinstall a sovereign Hawaiian monarchy. The production reinforced the bonds between Hawaiians and other ethnic groups formed during the early days of Hawai‘i’s plantations, and rallied people in support of Hawaiian sovereignty. The play is an act of redress that fortifies Hawai‘i’s history as a legitimate, sovereign nation and challenges hegemonic interpretations of Hawai‘i’s history that characterize US imperialism as a positive force that shaped Hawai‘i into a utopic multicultural paradise.[7]

Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl was one of the very first people I interviewed. Her words guided my research and offer tremendous insight for instructors and students who are eager to engage with both Asian American and Pacific Islander theatre.

JG: How did you find your way to theatre?

VNK: The Hawaiian Renaissance. At the time people were really interested in Hawaiian history and culture. We were attracted to the theatre because it allowed us to express who we are and where we came from in different ways. When hula and all kinds of traditional Hawaiian practices made a huge comeback, there were better plays and bigger audiences. Theatre, performance, history, and the street all came together for me. In the ’80s I participated in and wrote some of the early living history theatre in Honolulu. Now that performance type has really taken off in Hawai‘i. There’s all kinds of places and groups that are doing living histories now. When we started, a lot of academic historians were frowning on what we were doing. But the truth was that living history got people interested in Hawaiian history, in their personal history. People in Hawaiʻi need to be more aware of the colonial history. I don’t think enough people know.

JG: Can you tell me about your involvement with Kumu Kahua Theatre?

VNK:. I was in the right place at the right time. Kumu Kahua was new and I was new. They were hungry for scripts. I invested myself in Kumu Kahua because I really wanted to produce things that were written locally. Kumu Kahua didn’t always produce Local theatre because there just weren’t enough scripts. Sometimes they did Asian American plays that were written by Asian people who aren’t from Hawaiʻi. I was invested in a kind of theatre that was by and for the Local community and didn’t reflect the larger American theatre, popular theatre scene. I was hungry for things that reflected who I am and where I came from. I am still supportive of and invested in giving voice to our island stories or things that are relevant to our island communities. Now, there’s a whole bunch of young people and a much larger community that is invested in Local theatre. Other theatres are now just starting to do productions that have Local themes and are looking for really good locally written plays. There’s so many more people interested in our theatre. It is really rewarding to see that.

JG: What would you call what you write? Would you call that Local theatre or Hawaiian theatre?

VNK: People used to call my work Asian American theatre because when I started writing there was no Pacific Island theatre. I was really conflicted about that. You want people to read your plays and that was all that mattered to me. I wanted my plays out there. Some of my plays could be called Hawaiian theatre, but some are not. I’ve never quibbled over labels. I want the freedom to write whatever really touches and interests me and whatever I feel passionate about. I like to think of myself as a Pacific Island writer. Some of my plays could be categorized as Hawaiian theatre and some of them could be Local theatre and some could be neither.

JG: I’ve seen your plays in anthologies by women of color. But I’ve also seen them in postcolonial anthologies. The label I’ve seen most often is either Asian American or Hawaiian.

VNK: I think that people in academia need categories. Labels make it easier for them to teach. But as a writer, you’re not sitting at home thinking, “Am I a Hawaiian writer or am I a Local writer?” You’re just writing. You’re writing what comes into your head. And so I just kind of leave the labels to other people. I’ll just write the plays and they decide what they are.

JG: How would you define Local theatre?

VNK: That’s hard because Local theatre includes Hawaiian theatre, but Hawaiian theatre doesn’t necessarily include Local theatre. I guess you could say Hawaiian theatre is anything that has Hawaiian characters or Hawaiian issues as its main theme. Local theatre includes Asian and Asian American theatre. But out of all the labels out there, I like Pacific Island theatre the most because it’s so inclusive. Labels are hard because there’s always something left out and there’s always a gray area. It is really tricky because all these questions have come up for me for a long time. And so what I’m trying to do is not necessarily make hard and fast boundaries between things because that’s just impossible.

JG: So would you say there are multiple, overlapping genres at play here?

VNK: Yeah. The Local, Hawaiian, and Western. They overlap. They are not really separate from each other. I do think that there are certain kinds of colonial undertones and attitudes and certain dynamics that play out between the three. Colonialism permeated the arts in Hawaiʻi. When I was first involved with Kumu Kahua, I was just starting out in theatre. I remember I was at a party and I was talking to this woman. I said I was a theatre major, and she goes, “Oh, have you been in plays?” I said, “I’ve been in a few Kumu Kahua plays.” She looked at me and she said, “No, I mean, a real play.” Theatre in Hawaiʻi is something really special. But the problem is people have a certain idea of what Hawaiʻi is. I don’t think our island theatre really fits into that.[8]

When we look at Hawaiʻi, particularly its contemporary theatre scene, we see insightful tensions that arise from the distinct yet overlapping categorical schemas of  “Asian American,” “Asian,” “Pacific Islander,” “Local,” and “Hawaiian.” Kneubuhl’s remarks echo J. Kehaulani Kauanui’s essay “Asian American Studies and the ‘Pacific question’” that calls upon Asian American Studies to actively engage Indigenous and Pacific Islander Studies rather than passively absorb Hawaiian and Pacific Islander history and culture into Asian American culture.[9] Kneubuhl’s embrace of the label “Pacific writer” signifies the ongoing transpacific turn of Asian American Studies and a way to recognize holistically the many voices that make up Asian and Pacific diasporas. Decentering the United States highlights the inherent liminality and multidimensionality of Asian identities and cultures that exist across the Pacific. A transpacific, rather than a US-centric approach, can help us understand how theatre of Hawaiʻi and Asian American theatre are related but distinct from each other. Transpacific Studies, which draws from Asian American Studies, Asian Studies, Indigenous Studies, Pacific Island Studies, and American Studies, illuminates the flow in peoples, cultures, capital, ideas, and labor across the Pacific.[10] Theatre of Hawaiʻi and Asian American theatre are distinct representations of the people, cultures, and histories of the Pacific that directly inform each other and provide a model on how the field of Asian American Studies can produce new theorizations on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Kneubuhl’s work is a model for how to create equitable representation out of tremendous cultural plurality.

Jenna Gerdsen is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the School of Theatre at Florida State University. She is an emerging scholar whose work examines the racial formation of contemporary theatre of Hawai‘i and investigates how settler colonialism and immigration shape this theatre tradition vis-à-vis Indigenous and Asian American cultural production. Her research was featured in the curated panel “New Directions in Theatre and Performance” at the 2021 American Society for Theatre Research conference.

[1] Mark Chiang, The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies: Autonomy and Representation in the University (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[2] Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura, eds. Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai’i (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008).

[3] Esther Kim Lee, A History of Asian American Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3.

[4] Lisa Kahaleole Hall, “Navigating Our Own ‘Sea of Islands’: Remapping a Theoretical Space for Hawaiian Women and Indigenous Feminism,” Wicazo Sa Review 24 no. 2 (2009): 15–38; Kauanui, J. Kehaulani, “Where are Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders in Higher Education?” Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 7 September 2008.

[5] Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989).

[6] Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker, “The Development and Function of Hana Keaka (Hawaiian Medium Theatre): A Tool for Empowering the Kānaka Maoli Consciousness” (Dissertation, University of Waikato, 2019); Sammie L. Choy, “Staging Identity: The Intercultural Theater of Hawai‘i” (Dissertation, University of Hawai‘i, 2016); Stefani Overman-Tsai, “Localizing the Islands: Theaters of Place and Culture in Hawaii’s Drama” (Dissertation, University of Hawai‘i, 2015).

[7] Craig Howes, “Introduction,” in Hawai’i Nei: Island Plays (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002); Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, January 1893 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Press, 1993).

[8] Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, interview by Jenna Gerdsen, June 2019.

[9] J. Kehaulani Kauanui, “Asian American Studies and the ‘Pacific question,’” in Asian American Studies After Critical Mass, ed. Kent A. Ono (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 121-143.

[10] Janet Hoskins and Viet Thanh Nguyen, Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014).

Guest Editor: Donatella Galella
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Co-Managing Editor: Emily Furlich
Co-Managing Editor: Dahye Lee

Guest Editorial Board:

Arnab Banerji
Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns
Broderick Chow
Chris A. Eng
Esther Kim Lee
Sean Metzger
Christine Mok
Stephen Sohn

Advisory Board:

Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Tracey Elaine Chessum
Bill Demastes
Stuart Hecht
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
David Krasner
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Ariel Nereson
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “Introduction to Asian American Dramaturgies” by Donatella Galella
  • “Behind the Scenes of Asian American Theatre and Performance,” by Donatella Galella, Dorinne Kondo, Esther Kim Lee, Josephine Lee, Sean Metzger, and Karen Shimakawa
  • “On Young Jean Lee in Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die” by Christine Mok
  • “Representation from Cambodia to America: Musical Dramaturgies in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band” by Jennifer Goodlander
  • “The Dramaturgical Sensibility of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap and Cambodian Rock Band” by Kristin Leahey, with excerpts from an interview with Joseph Ngo
  • “Holding up a Lens to the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists: A Photo Essay” by Roger Tang
  • “Theatre in Hawaiʻi: An ‘Illumination of the Fault Lines’ of Asian American Theatre” by Jenna Gerdsen
  • “Randul Duk Kim: A Sojourn in the Embodiment of Words” by Baron Kelly
  • “Reappropriation, Reparative Creativity, and Feeling Yellow in Generic Ensemble Company’s The Mikado: Reclaimed” by kt shorb
  • “Dance Planets” by Al Evangelista
  • “Dramaturgy of Deprivation (없다): An Invitation to Re-Imagine Ways We Depict Asian American and Adopted Narratives of Trauma” by Amy Mihyang Ginther
  • Clubhouse: Stories of Empowered Uncanny Anomalies” by Bindi Kang
  • “Off-Yellow Time vs. Off-White Space: Activist Asian American Dramaturgy in Higher Education” by Daphne P. Lei
  • “Asian American Dramaturgies in the Classroom: A Reflection” by Ariel Nereson

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Yu Chien Lu, Administrative Producer

©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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