No Man Is An Island

Theater Mu Presents One Nisei's Hawaiian Life; Jerungdu Dress Up Like the Ramones

Next to my desk I have a dozen dictionaries of slang, some curiously broad-ranging. Simply by flipping through a few pages, I discover that a diminutive person was once called a hop-o-my-thumb and that at the
beginning of the 19th Century it was common to refer to the tongue as the red rag, as in Shut your potato trap, and give your red rag a rest. But if I look up da kine--perhaps the most flexible word in Hawaiian pidgin

slang, roughly translating as the thingy--I find nothing. I can learn that it was once widely understood that when you refer to a woman as having an Irish toothache, you are telling me that she is pregnant. Yet if you were to use a still-common Hawaiian expression such as kolohe (a troublemaker), no scramble through my dictionaries would turn up the meaning.

How odd, when the mainland of the United States has been so avidly borrowing from the Hawaiian Islands for so long. The German publisher Taschen recently issued a lavishly illustrated collection called The Book of Tiki, meticulously documenting America's ongoing obsession with Polynesian cultures. The author, Sven A. Kirsten, traces this cultural curiosity back to soldiers who were stationed in Hawaii and who brought boatloads of florid shirts and ukuleles back to the mainland after their tour of duty. Sometimes it seems as though there was nothing from the Hawaiian Islands that was not marketed as delightful exotica in Middle America--until you take a listen to the island's pidgin dialect, which suffuses the slang of many native Hawaiians yet never made the ocean voyage.

Today's catch: S. Yoon Burrows and Kurt Mattsen in 'Song for a Nisei Fisherman'
Today's catch: S. Yoon Burrows and Kurt Mattsen in 'Song for a Nisei Fisherman'

Well, the loss is ours. Who wouldn't want to cajole an unruly child by threatening them with dirty lickens, as they do in Hawaii? And who doesn't need, in an emergency, to cry out pilikia, or big trouble!

This last word appears in Theater Mu's production of Philip Kan Gotanda's A Song for a Nisei Fisherman. If I remember correctly, the word appears when the eponymous fisherman (a moon-faced and perpetually grinning Kurt Mattsen), recalls a scene from his childhood in Kauai. He tells the story of a favorite hunting dog who was badly gored one day while hunting wild boar. In this scene, the pidgin comes fast and thick, some of it purely Hawaiian, some of it Japanese: horafuki meaning big liar; Haole, meaning Caucasian; kuso, meaning shit.

Lest it seem I'm trying to muscle in on Ari Hoptman's lexicographical racket, I should point out that all these words are helpfully translated in the play's program. All, that is, but for one: Nisei, from the title. That word refers to second-generation Japanese-Americans, such as the fisherman at the center of this tale. Gotanda's play is an abbreviated look at the man's life. Director Rick Shiomi has given the production a typically spare staging, placing Mattsen atop several risers painted with bamboo patterns, and having Mattsen narrate the fisherman's memories in a beatific sing-song, miming such activities as chumming a lake and cleaning a fish. Other actors occasionally emerge from behind a gold-colored wooden screen to reenact scenes from his life: His brother (Eric Sumangil), who emerges with a pair of taxi dancers in San Francisco, circa 1938; his wife (S. Yoon Burrows), whom he proposes to outside a Buddhist church in Stockton, California; and a soldier (Bill Manion), who inters the fisherman in a detention camp during World War II.

It takes a Herculean effort to fit one man's entire life into 90 minutes, even when that life bears no additional burden, such as representing the experiences of an entire generation of Japanese Americans. And so the fisherman's history swirls by as quickly as the disconnected Japanese and Hawaiian phrases. The result is some really odd transitions. At the end of one scene, in which the fisherman describes a hunting expedition in which he accidentally killed a swan, his wife leaps out from behind the screen holding a little bundle and crying out, "Not a swan--your son!"

Well, the point is that the fisherman is now a father, but instead I mistakenly thought he had murdered his infant child, which seems like it must take both terrible aim and mighty pilikia.

 

In the meanwhile, the Jerungdu Theater Company has decided to tell another life story in 90 minutes: specifically, the life of the Ramones. Rather than using Fisherman's episodic approach, the company has simply dressed up in blue jeans, ratty T-shirts, leather jackets, and jet-black bird's-nest wigs and set about to play through the band's greatest hits. The only thing that saves this production from just being a punk variation of a KISS cover band is a series of interstitial sequences in which young punk rockers rush up to the stage and cry out things like "You don't need looks or talent to rock!"

At one point, Joey Ramone's father, played by Chris Huff, is pushed out in a wheelchair and takes the opportunity to berate Joey for not being punk enough (which is fair, as the actor playing Joey, Kali Wolf, is far too pretty and subdued for the role). The father then leaps into the audience, moshing wildly in a pair of ill-fitting Depends. Yes, it's punk, but I can't help feeling that the show might have better represented the Ramones if it had lasted a mere two and a half minutes.

 
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