fbpx The Honolulu Theater Scene | HowlRound Theatre Commons
Essay by

The Honolulu Theater Scene

Essay by

Hawaii is not a big state, about 1.4 million people, fortieth in population although thirteenth in density. Two-thirds of the state’s population lives on Oahu and the city and county of Honolulu encompasses the whole island. So, we’re bigger than San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle—a good-sized, cosmopolitan American city.

Some other things about where we live: We are the only state made up of islands. We are the most isolated population center in the world, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 2,500 miles from California or about a four-and-a-half-hour plane ride away. We have our own time zone and we don’t do daylight savings because we are the southernmost state in the union and the length of our days doesn’t change much.

Because we are so far south and because we’re in the middle of a large ocean, our weather is great except for the occasional hurricane—two in my lifetime—or the vog (haze from the Kilauea eruption on the big island which has been going on for the last thirty years). The daily weather report is generally highs in the mid-eighties, lows in the mid-seventies, with a few morning showers followed by sunshine. The highest recorded temperature in Honolulu was ninety-five degrees and the lowest, fifty-two degrees. A lot of days it’s both raining and sunny at the same time, which gives rise to great rainbows. When I was a kid in Sunday school and I learned about the rainbow being a promise from God to Noah, I couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal.

We are an ethnically diverse community. Everybody is a minority in Hawaii, no ethnic group is a majority of the population. A lot of us are “mixed.” In the nineties, the estimate of people marrying outside of their ethnicity was something like 65 percent. Pretty soon it will be hard to marry outside your ethnic group because everybody will be “hapa.” In 1993, Time magazine put out a special issue with the image of a woman “morphed” out of several ethnic groups dubbing her the “new Eve” and speculating on the mixing of “races” in America. For some of the editors she seemed exotic and impossible. Many of us here said “she looks like my cousin.” We love to make ethnic jokes, but it really is humor because we all have “cousins” who are different “colors.”

We also have a unique political history. Hawaiians were here centuries before the islands were “discovered” by Captain Cook. By the way, there is a very important difference between being from Hawaii and being Hawaiian, which means that you are Native Hawaiian, descended from people who were here before Cook. Now a lot of “Hawaiians” call themselves kanaka maoli. On the mainland I had to take pains to explain this to my friends and colleagues. Shortly after the British came here, Kamehameha united the islands into one kingdom. A little more than a hundred years ago, we were an independent monarchy, so we are the only state with a royal palace. The government was overthrown, the queen deposed, and eventually the country was annexed by a foreign power, the United States. I was born in the territory of Hawaii and we became the fiftieth state in 1959. Many of us are descended from people who were brought here to work on the sugar plantations. As in the rest of the United States, the native population has suffered a lot from colonization.

What is the theatre scene like in Honolulu? We are certainly not like any other state. Donna Blanchard, the managing director of Kumu Kahua Theatre came to us from Indiana. She was surprised to find out that except for Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) there is no resident professional theatre in Hawaii. Harry Wong, the artistic director of Kumu, who was born and raised here, tells the story of when he was a fellow at the Arena Stage in Washington DC. They were having a discussion about the purpose of theatre. The directors had all kinds of things to say but when they got to Harry, what he said surprised them. The purpose of the theatre, he said, is community service.

Kumu Kahua produces work for, by, and about the people of Hawaii, which means we do works written by Hawaii writers as well as plays that have significance to the many ethnic and cultural communities that make up the local audience.


The city of Honolulu framed by the ocean and mountains in the distance.
Skyline of Honolulu. Photo by Paradigm San Francisco.


How does this manifest in Hawaii? The great majority of work done here is by community theatres and most have a particular focus. Diamond Head Theatre (DHT) is known for musical theatre productions, a role also filled by Army Community Theatre until military spending cuts shut them down. Manoa Valley Theatre (MVT) considers itself the “Off–Broadway” house although they recently have been doing Broadway as well (August Osage County, God of Carnage, Next to Normal). The Actor’s Group produces an eclectic mix of dramas and is the primary local producer of African American plays (Suzan-Lori Parkes’s Top Dog/Underdog, plays by August Wilson). Kumu Kahua produces work for, by, and about the people of Hawaii, which means we do works written by Hawaii writers as well as plays that have significance to the many ethnic and cultural communities that make up the local audience. That work can range from Hawaiian issue plays like the plays of Alani Apio, Tammy Baker, or Victoria Kneubuhl, to the plays of Asian American playwrights Darrell Lum or Ed Sakamoto, to the often Pidgin-inflected comedies of Lee Cataluna. HTY produces work for young people about all kinds of contemporary issues including recently new works by Alvin Chan (Lion Dancer, Five Chinese Brothers). Of particular note is Tammy Baker’s Ka Halau Hanakeaka, which is a Hawaiian language theatre company.

The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival will complete the corpus of the bard’s plays this summer in its twelfth season. Previous seasons have included all female casts of several of the plays as festival director Tony Pisculli has tried to balance the opportunities for women actors in the community. Also of recent note is the sold out production of Julius Caesar set in post-colonial Hawaii.

Other components of the Honolulu scene: The Oahu Fringe Festival has completed two seasons. Improvaganza, the Hawaii Improvisation Festival has done seven. Both festivals have attracted talent from all over. Not to mention, companies like Cherry Blossom Caberet or Monkey Waterfall Dance Theatre.

Another important component is theatre produced by educational institutions. Leeward Community College has a long tradition of training terrific actors and producing work ranging from homegrown community-based stories, to classics like The Bacchae or Tartuffe, to the works of Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses, Arabian Nights, Argonautika). Windward Community College’s recent work includes Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories. The University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) is frankly the only institution in the country where actors can train and perform in Asian theatre forms with master teachers from home countries. Students can have the opportunity to study and perform in English language Jingju (Beijing Opera), Kabuki, Kyogen, and Indonesian Randai.

There is strong work done by high schools as well. The public schools have four theatre-based “learning centers” on Oahu. Castle High has a long history of producing outstanding musical theatre and sending graduates to Broadway. Nanakuli on the Leeward coast has a program whose purpose is focused on keeping kids in school and on track rather than on producing professional actors. Several of the private schools also produce good work. At Mid-Pacific Institute School of the Arts, where I teach, we train actors for community or professional work or further study at college conservatories. We pride ourselves on the breadth of work from classics (Shakespeare, the Greeks, Chekhov), to children’s theatre (James and the Giant Peach, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Iizuka’s Anon(ymous)), to musicals (13, Godspell, Fame, Rent, Into the Woods), to new and original works done to exacting standards of performance. And while I have seen a Texas high school do a Kabuki Macbeth, I think we may be the only high school in the country to have produced English language Jingju (Pan Si Dong, Jia de Houzi), Sanskrit Drama (Shakuntala), and Kyogen.

Sometimes, the breadth and quality of this creative work is appreciated by substantial audiences. Sometimes audiences are limited to a theatregoing elite. Sometimes the work of theatres is invisible to parts of our community. At Kumu, we more often than we would like learn from people that they have never heard about us. But sometimes our work goes across the ocean. Victoria Kneubuhl’s plays have been produced elsewhere in the world. A few years ago, I was asked to direct Ola Na Iwi in Seattle. Kumu Kahua took Ka’iulani and The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu to the Edinburgh International Fringe and has taken Alani Apio’s Kamau to the Festival of Pacific Arts in Samoa. Six Hawaii high school’s have produced and presented work in Edinburgh. And in a kind of reverse cultural exchange, UHM Jingju productions have toured to China.

About new work: Kumu Kahua probably commissions, develops and produces the most new work. We sponsor a yearly playwriting contest and often develop and produce those plays. As noted, HTY also commissions and produces new work. TAG recently presented a festival of staged readings of new plays. Kumu is also known for producing narrative theatre adaptations of novels and other literary works (Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Heads by Harry, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre; Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman; Gary Pak’s The Watcher of Waipuna and A Ricepaper Airplane, Frederick Wichman’s Pele Ma). A collaboration between Kumu and Kaka’ako community development organization, R & D—Interisland Terminal produced a two-week collaborative master class and performance workshop. It brought together actors, directors, playwrights, and producers with Actor’s Studio teacher Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano and resulted in Co-Lab Kaka’ako, three new works presented in a warehouse in transition to art space in the Kaka’ako community.

There is an amazing community of talent in this town and like our community, in which everyone is related, we are all really connected.

The last thing I will mention about our work is that given we are a small community with no resident professional companies (HTY being the exception), people work together and all over the place. Actors move freely between organizations based on their interest in the work. MVT’s production of Gotanda’s The Sisters Matsumoto included many actors familiar to Kumu audiences as did the DHT production of Cataluna’s You Somebody. There is an amazing community of talent in this town and like our community, in which everyone is related, we are all really connected. I once acted at DHT in The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Anne Occhiogrosso and Randall Duk Kim (one of my heroes, a little Korean guy from a tiny town on the Big Island who made his name doing a one-man Mark Twain show across America as well as being one of the best American Shakespearean actors, but who is known to my students now as the Keymaster in the Matrix movies). I learned a lot from them even though I only had a number of small roles, but backstage at DHT one day, I also noticed that there was an old snapshot of a very young Bette Midler in a DHT production. Another connection story: One summer I taught an acting class at Kumu. Vicky Kneubuhl was teaching playwriting and she asked me if I would be interested in having my students do readings of her students’ work. Of course, I jumped at the chance. Most of the students had written scenes, but one had written a full-length play. That student was a local newscaster, Lee Cataluna, and the play was Da Mayah, which we later produced at Kumu. That Cataluna blockbuster was followed by several more. One of them, You Somebody, as mentioned above, produced not by Kumu but by DHT, featured the stage debut of a local nightclub jazz singer named Loretta Ables-Sayre and launched her to the Tony-nominated performance of Bloody Mary in Bartlett Sher’s revival of South Pacific.

I have to apologize to everybody I left out. We’re tiny islands in the Pacific, but there’s just too much going on in this small space.


Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

An overview of the Honolulu theatre scene.

Honolulu, Hawaii


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

I remember back in the 60's being in several shows at the Honolulu Community Theater [HCT] and in a couple of shows for U.S. Army Hawaii. The final cap was I was an "extra" on the original Hawaii 50. I fond memory.

Thanks for the recognition of Leeward. I just left the theatre manager position there a few months ago but until recently, I felt like there wasn't a lot of acknowledgement of the interesting work that is done out there.

We brought some touring groups in, but also produced works of local interest like Naupaka, an opera entirely in Hawaiian; dance drama about the snow goddess Poli'ahu; brought in works by our partners on Maui about Kahekili and the central role water plays in the lives of the Hawaiian people. Most recently we produced a piece that recreated Balinese temple celebrations.

These types of things may sound like works of marginal appeal, but they each packed the house.

Keep an eye on Hawaii folks, the culture in the state is on the rise. It isn't just people like Jake Shimabukuro who get a lot of media coverage. There are an increasing number of artists from Hawaii performing across the world.

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today