In my final post about the kabuki symposium, I thought I would provide a summary of the history of kabuki at Hawaii, as described by the extremely prominent kabuki scholar and UH professor emeritus, James Brandon.
Above: A scene from the 1924 UH production of “The Faithful.”
As his presentation for the symposium, Dr. Brandon gave a summary of the 87-year history of English-language kabuki here in Hawaii, starting with a 1924 performance of “The Faithful,” by John Masefield, a play written originally in English, loaded with Orientalism, intended to introduce Western audiences to Eastern culture, and loosely based on the story of the 47 Ronin but not really based on the kabuki Chûshingura.
In this first decade of kabuki productions, theatre at UH was very much dominated by Caucasians. Though the student body was something like 60-75% Chinese or Japanese, roughly 90% of the casts of shows performed by the “Dramatic Club” were Caucasian. A new UH Theatre Guild was formed in 1931, dedicated explicitly to providing theatre opportunities for those who had been denied them before on account of their ethnicity/race. The group was to organize one Chinese, one Japanese, one Hawaiian, and one Western play each year, this final category being referred to as “haole plays,” in what I perceive today as a snarky jab. In an interesting twist, however, the casts were divided by race, so Japanese plays had all-Japanese casts, Chinese plays had all-Chinese casts, and haole plays continued to have all-white casts. In addition to serving many other purposes, such as introducing Asian high culture to the Hawaiian public etc., it was believed that studying performance would be a great way for non-whites to learn to speak standard English, so they could get better jobs, and be better off in life.
It’s troubling and painful to be reminded that this sort of racial discrimination went on, and it being brought up created, I felt, an interesting tension in the room as those who share ethnic background with the victims of this discrimination had of course a different reaction to it from those of us who happen to share the skin color of the perpetrators of this kind of discrimination. I must admit, there is something to be said for actually having people who look Japanese play Japanese roles, and for the aesthetics of it actually looking right. But, of course, excluding anyone of any background from participating in anything is today considered quite racist and inappropriate.
In any case, racially mixed casts just didn’t happen at this time, and wouldn’t for decades. While it may seem on the surface to be reflective of Chinese and Japanese (and native Hawaiians) getting revenge or something, in fact, this was still very much reflective of the race relations environment we all lived in back then, in which Chinese, Japanese, and others had to forcibly create these kinds of experiences for themselves, and in which even in those contexts, the thought of mixing races (e.g. allowing haoles, or having haoles choose to, participate in spaces carved out for Chinese/Japanese activity) was apparently just out of the question.
For about five years from the bombing of Pearl Harbor until the end of WWII, Japanese cultural expressions were severely suppressed in Hawaii, so there was no kabuki, though of course that was hardly the worst consequence of this suppression. I have heard stories of people today who lament that their parents or grandparents destroyed their family’s heirloom kimono and other such family treasures at this time, in order to try to appear more loyally American. And, of course, as we all know, that too was hardly the worst of it.
Kabuki returned after the war, revived by Earle Ernst, chief theatre censor for the Occupation forces (who would later go on to be a super major kabuki scholar), who came to Hawaii in 1947 or so and organized a production of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami in 1951. Our current movement teacher, Onoe Kikunobu, was involved in this production, and in most, if not all, since. Unlike was done before, Ernst made a point of declaring this to be real kabuki, and not just some American imitation or version or adaptation, an important discursive move, which has helped solidify the idea down to today that Hawaii Kabuki is a regional form, a local “troupe” so to speak, performing “real” kabuki just as genuine as any rural, regional, local (jishibai) troupe in Japan.
Above: David Furumoto and Gertrude Tsutsumi (Onoe Kikunobu) in rehearsals for “The Road to Kyoto”, 1976-77
Beginning around 1963 with a production of Benten Kozo which opened the new Kennedy Theatre, and peaking in the 1970s under the leadership of James Brandon, UH Kabuki experienced its Golden Age. It had great funding, was able to borrow costumes, wigs, and other things from Shochiku, and was able to bring professional kabuki actors such as Nakamura Matagoro II (see also) to Hawaii to train up the students. One of the professors who spoke later, David Furumoto, was a UH student at the time, took part in 7 productions, and was extremely emotional about how powerful that experience was for him. My friends, current grad students in the Theatre Dept, were amazed at the resources evidently available at that time, evident in the quality of the sets, etc, since such resources are certainly not available today. At one point, they apparently even somehow reconstructed an early Edo period style stage, and perhaps the whole theater, with box seats.
Race-blind casting was not introduced until 1970, far later than I would have expected, and even at that time it was described as only an experiment. Brandon’s 1970 production of Sukeroku was described as “blue-eyed kabuki,” though whether that was a criticism, or an amused, intrigued comment, I was not quite clear; I imagine there were those who held each view. This production also took the bold move of (re-)introducing a love scene between Sukeroku and Agemaki which is not normally performed in Japan, ever, anymore. A 1978 production toured the country.
Above: A clip from a 1995 UH performance of “Sukeroku”.
Hawaii Kabuki continues today under my teacher, Dr Julie Iezzi, who organized a performance of Nozakimura in 2004, and is leading us all in preparing for Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba (The Vengeful Sword) which will debut April 2011. After today’s symposium, and all the videos shown of students participating and everything, I really want to continue to be involved somehow. I had set my mind on not auditioning for the play, since I know I’m not really up to it in terms of my skills and such, either in voice or in movement, nor am I particularly motivated to go through hours and hours and hours of rehearsals. But, now I am once again thinking that this is an opportunity not to be missed, to actually participate in a performance. How will I feel come April if I am to go to just one performance, sit in the audience, and just be a regular audience member, totally divorced from being “one of them”, part of the cast? How will I feel years down the road, when I know I could have had the opportunity to be in a kabuki, and let it pass me by?
Auditions are on Monday. Wish me luck!
PS I have added videos to my post Kabuki Symposium Part 2. If you are interested in seeing the demonstrations of some of what we have been working on, please take a look.