In the weeks leading up to Gov. Neil Abercrombie signing the marriage equality act for the state of Hawaii in 2013, graduate student Yilong Liu was walking through the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus when a group of activists asked if he would sign a petition in support of the bill. Liu signed it, but the experience got him thinking — what if there was someone out there who supported the bill, but didn’t want anybody else to know that? What would happen if the political movement brought up secrets from that person’s past? Liu, who was studying playwriting, put his ideas on paper.

The resulting play, Joker, tells the story of Joe, a former gay rights activist whose comfortable life with his wife and stepson is threatened when an old friend — who knows a lot of old secrets — comes to Honolulu during the 2013 push for marriage equality. Joker just finished a run at the New York International Fringe Festival and then came back home to open Kumu Kahua Theatre’s 45th season. The play took the stage last Thursday and is slated to show through Oct. 4.

Kumu Kahua Theatre managing director Donna Blanchard PHOTO BY MISSY ROMERO

Kumu Kahua Theatre managing director Donna Blanchard PHOTO BY MISSY ROMERO

Kumu Kahua Theatre was established in the 1970s by a group of graduate students who wanted to create a platform for Hawaii-based artists to showcase their work. Today, the theater produces works by local playwrights that are set within the Islands.

“We’re trying to create … plays that are about Hawaii that say something about how we live,” says Kumu Kahua Theatre artistic director Harry Wong III.

It’s what is referred to as “theater of place” — telling localized stories by and for the community where they originated. And while that concept is a fluid one that can be adopted by any community, it is, perhaps, all the more poignant in Hawaii — where aspiring playwrights, performers and directors are distant from the big stages in larger markets, and where the depictions that saturate media are not always accurate.

“It’s important for people in Hawaii to have their own voice,” Wong muses. “It’s important that you have a place where you can see yourself, where you can hear your own voice, where you can hear your own stories.”

And while these plays might be geographically confined to Hawaii, the themes within them are far-reaching.

The cast of ‘Joker' (from left) Jim Aina, Jason Kanda, Aiko Chinen and Randall Galius DENISE DE GUZMAN PHOTO

The cast of ‘Joker’ (from left) Jim Aina, Jason Kanda, Aiko Chinen and Randall Galius DENISE DE GUZMAN PHOTO

“Some of the plays … could take place anywhere — it just so happens that City Mill comes up, or Chinatown,” says Kumu Kahua Theatre managing director Donna Blanchard.

In addition to Joker, the theater’s current season lineup includes My Boy He Play Ball by Tammy Haili‘opua Baker, which follows a football player as he grapples with the decision to accept a sports scholarship at a Mainland college, and Not One Batu, a real-time peek into the life of a North Shore meth user-turned-drug dealer, by Hannah Ii-Epstein. The season finishes off with Eric Yokomori’s Pelicans, a darkly comedic coming-of-age story about a group of young adults at a crossroads, and Susan Soon He Stanton’s #IAmBadAtThis, a one-woman show that chronicles the struggles of a young woman returning home to Hawaii after living in New York, all told through her interactions with electronic devices and social media.

As Blanchard sees it, theater in general — and perhaps particularly this type of localized storytelling — can provide a form of catharsis for the audience. Blanchard first became interested in theater of place after reading work by Jo Carson, who travelled to towns throughout the country, gathering stories from the local residents and then producing plays based on those stories. Blanchard later became a personal friend of Carson, and she witnessed how her work helped the towns she visited.

“Sometimes, the stories that you have to tell are not the really nice stories. Every town has some dark stuff going on,” Blanchard says. “Approach(ing) that through this vehicle of theater is very, very safe. Because eventually, the lights are going to come back on.”

To bolster the local theater scene, Kumu Kahua also serves as a sort of theatrical incubator for local playwrights, directors, designers and performers to hone their craft, offering classes and internships for anyone who is interested in various facets of a stage production. Joker director Wil Kahele, for instance, started as an assistant at Kumu Kahua before moving on to directing his own productions. Wong also will work directly with up-and-coming writers to help them flesh out or finessing their ideas, and he and Blanchard both teach acting classes at Kapolei Middle School and Pacific Buddhist Academy.

Kumu Kahua Theatre, located in downtown Honolulu, focuses on plays about Hawaii written by local playwrights

Kumu Kahua Theatre, located in downtown Honolulu, focuses on plays about Hawaii written by local playwrights

“(Hawaii) is so far removed from the rest of the country that it could be a very difficult landscape for our local playwrights to grow in,” Blanchard says.

Looking ahead, Blanchard and Wong hope that they can expand the theater’s reach — tour its shows on other islands and in other cities, and establish exchange programs with other theaters worldwide.

In addition to spreading theatrical skills with others, Blanchard says that this type of outreach also is about sharing Kumu Kahua’s works as a way to provide insight into what it’s like to live in Hawaii.

“I would like people to … learn about the experience of being here,” Blanchard says. “Honestly — and I know that this sounds a little crazy — but I think that understanding people’s stories is the key to world peace.”

For more information about Kumu Kahua Theatre, visit kumukahua.org.

Yilong Liu

Yilong Liu has been writing ever since he was a high schooler in China. First, he experimented with short stories, before moving into screenplays and playwriting.

A graduate of Beijing Normal University, Liu worked in radio and television before moving to Hawaii in 2012 to study playwriting at University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is set to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree this semester.
His play Joker, which is on stage now at Kumu Kahua Theatre, previously showed at UH and the New York International Fringe Festival — and earned him a Po‘okela Award for Original Script. His previous works also have ran at Honolulu Theatre for Youth.

“I’m always interested in Asian-American stories and LGBTQ stories — and that intersection,” explains Liu.

Part of his inspiration for Joker was a former roommate he had at UH — a man from the Philippines whose name was Joker. For whatever reason, Liu found, Joker tried to disassociate himself from Filipino culture.

“I found these characteristics so intriguing and full of story potential, so I started writing (Joker),” Liu says.

Liu recently was in New York for the Fringe Fest, but he returned to town last week for Joker’s opening night at Kumu Kahua Theatre.

“I am really, really excited about the run in Hawaii,” Liu adds.