Thoroughly Local, Powerfully Raw

After transferring Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s book Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre to the stage earlier this year, Kumu Kahua Theatre finishes its season by bringing the play back. A&S had a chat with managing director Donna Blanchard and director Harry Wong III:

What is your goal in translating the book to the stage?

Wong: There’s enough TV shows and movies that represent another culture or way of thinking, but a truly indigenous outlook and presentation, the way Lois-Ann wrote the poems – to capture that is my initial goal.

Elexis Draine

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Elexis Draine stars in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre. Photo courtesy of Kumu Kahua Theatre

One of the founding principles of the theater is before you can be universal, you have to be local. I’m really focusing on making it particular to this place, but ultimately my hope is for people to recognize themselves on stage.

Did Yamanaka write the stage play?

Blanchard: Harry Wong and board member John Wat did the adaptation.

But she came in to watch several times and brought her mother. She talks about her mom pretty blatantly, about growing up hard, and she was actually nervous when she came in with her mom. Her mom loved it. I saw a lively conversation between the woman who plays her mother and Lois-Ann’s actual mother.

Wong: At one point I was going to change the ending, but I said I’ll let Lois-Ann see it and she liked it so much I couldn’t change it.

You have a post-show talk story with Yamanaka July 27.

Blanchard: She did that during the last run, too. Lois-Ann is charismatic and engaging because she’s so honest and beautifully raw. She has tattoo sleeves and she talked about how every one of those tattoos is covering a scar. She’s crying while she’s talking about this and about not dancing around the flame – how you have to jump into it and how hard it is to write and how revealing it is. I get goose-bumps just thinking about it.

The book addresses controversial topics. Did you hold back?

Wong: Controversial? I think it’s just a sweet tale of growing up in Pahala.

Blanchard: That shows up in the way that he directs it. I was feeling suicidal after reading it and then I watched one of his rehearsals and I was like holy crap, he found the joy in there.

There are things that this young girl went through that will make you really uncomfortable and they should. It’s a series of vignettes that are tied together to show a progression through her life, but also to give you a little levity when you need it. There’s one that makes me lightheaded every time I see that particular monologue done. It is so graphic, it makes me feel faint.

Wong: Greek poet Pindar says a human being is like a flower. You have to water it right, the sun has to be right. Plato says the personality of the human being is a diamond. You can take a hammer and smash it and smash it and the diamond will stay solid and pure and beautiful.

There are incidences in this girl’s life where you think, my god, she’s never going to make it through this, the drought is coming and she’s just going to wither and die. And then there are other influences, moments of tenderness and recognition where she learns something about what it really means to be a generous or kind person. It becomes so obvious, she’s a diamond – all this stuff can happen to her and she’s still going to grow.

Blanchard: Theater is the safest place in the world to talk about the most troubling and difficult subjects we have because, yes, you’re sitting in the dark with strangers, but you’re safe. And things are going to be if not resolved, at least they’re going to end. If you feel uncomfortable when you watch these stories, it’s because they resonate with all of us. This is what Kumu Kahua is all about – telling our stories. We tell the funny ones – Folks You Meet In Longs – and we have to do this also.

Wong: Lois-Ann Yamanaka is a living treasure of Hawaii, and her voice will ring for countless generations. I’m not saying this is up to her work, but it’s a definite introduction to themes and the power of her written work. I wouldn’t want people to miss it.

Blanchard: I hope people leave having wonderful conversations about how this resonates with them. Come see what we’re doing here at Kumu Kahua because you’re not going to see it anywhere else.

the TICKET stub

When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. through Aug. 5
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre (46 Merchant St.).
Cost: $5-$20 More Info: 536-4441 or