The History of Hawai‘i From Our Files: Theater at UH Mānoa

In November 1932, Paradise of the Pacific notes that the then-new idea of combining actors and actresses of different ethnicities and international theatrical styles was surprising.


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UH Mānoa’s theater program is known for its mix of experimental, Asian, Hawaiian and multicultural performances. In November 1932, Paradise of the Pacific notes that the then-new idea of combining actors and actresses of different ethnicities and international theatrical styles was surprising, to say the least, in its story, “Honolulu’s Inter-Racial Theatre.”


“A Chinese lad looks sheepishly out into the black wall of nothingness somewhere within whose reaches he can hear Arthur Wyman pacing restlessly back and forth. He clears his throat and begins again in a manful attempt to obliterate all traces of the implied query which usually accompanies pidgin English.


“Yes, the season of the University of Hawaii Theater Guild, strangest of all dramatic organizations, is again in full swing.


“Up among the cool shadows of Manoa Valley a busy hammering may be heard, and the curious passerby may see strange sights of an evening if he peers down the corridors of the university auditorium. On the stage, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian and haole students may be building a lovely Oriental stage garden, while a lad whose forefathers may have been samurai, but who is now accustomed to shoes than clogs, rehearses the best method of baring his soul in the manner of the great Kabuki tragedians.


“What to do for dramatics? That was the question which administrators of the University of Hawaii asked themselves two years ago. With an enrollment of almost 2,000 students, resembling in variety the roster of the league of nations, the fair selection of a cast was indeed a problem. It had been the tradition to produce plays written for a Caucasian cast. If students of Oriental or Hawaiian extraction were used at all, it was generally in the guise of a tray-carrier or an off-stage noise. Sometimes, with the judicious use of makeup, a haole could be created where there had been no haole before, but transformations of this nature were not convincing.”


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It was Arthur E. Wyman who suggested making the theater interracial.


“The Hawaiian pageant, which followed the Japanese production in 1931, was given on Lei Day, May first. Written by Marry Dillingham Frear, loved kamaaina, the pageant caught something out of the heritage of the brown-eyed lads and lassies of Polynesia, who, sad to say make up a dwindling group on the university campus. The pageant was built around the coronation of the lei queen, chosen each year from among the ranks of the Hawaiian co-eds.


“The words were spoken in both English and Hawaiian.”


In the theater’s second season, the guild took on what the magazine called one of the most ambitious theatrical enterprises ever staged in Honolulu: Manu Amida Butsu (“Praise Be Lord Buddha”). It was six acts and 11 scenes that took seven hours in Japan and five hours in American productions. As they prepared for next season, Paradise of the Pacific writes: “There is a strange sense of bated eagerness to be found among the guild workers, for this year a great honor has come to them. In addition to the irregular program, they are to produce a world premier in March, a world premier which should be mentioned in the metropolitan papers of San Francisco, New York, London. Christopher Morley, whose revival of the melodramas in the old Rialto theater in Hoboken, New Jersey, several years ago took silk-hatted, diamond-studded Broadway by storm, has given permission for the Guild to produce the world’s premiere of his whimsical drama ‘Where the Blue Begins.’ Most interesting of all, the author will be in Honolulu for the performances and will, in all probability, take part in the play himself.”


Aren’t we glad this isn’t the case anymore? Decades before Lin-Manuel Miranda caused a stir with a multiracial Hamilton, Hawai‘i theaters welcomed performers of various ethnicities on stage. But we’re more proud of the variety of voices represented in local theater today. Starting as a student at UH Mānoa, ‘Iolani graduate Edward Sakamoto went on to write 19 plays portraying the lives of Japanese American families in Hawai‘i, and Kumu Kahua was created by UH students as a place to produce plays by local playwrights. It’s celebrating its 50th season this year.


SEE ALSO: From Stew Rice to Obake: Students Pay Tribute to Beloved Hawai‘i Playwright Edward Sakamoto’s Work


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