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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010

'Massacre' carries out Brecht style

Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Dennis Chun, Ryan Sutherlan, Wayne Takabayashi and Danielle Zalopany act out Tremaine Tamayose's work about a 1938 confrontation between striking dockworkers and police.

Firebird Photography

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8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 20

Kumu Kahua Theatre


536-4441, www.kumukahua.org

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Tremaine Tamayose's "The Hilo Massacre" is being presented by Kumu Kahua Theatre as a link to the 13th International Brecht Society Symposium, which concluded in Honolulu on May 23. The Brecht connection is well-deserved.

The play's co-directors, Denny Hironaga and Harry Wong III, use many of the techniques pioneered by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who promoted an "epic theater" of alienation to keep his audiences thinking critically without sinking into distracting emotion.

Consequently, actor Tyler Tanabe announces each of the scenes by number and a cryptic descriptor: "I play a character who dies." The short scenes are stopped, restarted, and occasionally redone. The minor characters create a chorus that sometimes speaks in unison. Stage lighting is sharp and often directed into the eyes of the audience.

Tamayose, who died in 1998, originally wrote the script for television. Kumu Kahua has reworked it for this stage premiere, with Tanabe offering narrative comments to point out the differences.

All of this successfully captures the Brechtian goal of keeping the audience continually aware that they are in a theater. But it also begs the question of the Brechtian lesson: What is the message to be learned from the performance?

Based on historical fact, the play traces events that led up to a 1938 confrontation between striking dockworkers and police in which 200 strikers engaged in a peaceful demonstration. Fifty received wounds from buckshot and birdshot. One was stabbed with a bayonet. None died.

Although the event did not result in immediate union gains, the undeserved and violent overreaction opened the way to organized labor in the state of Hawai'i, where unionism remains consistently strong. The event also included multi-ethnic workers from several different developing unions in an unusual demonstration of solidarity.

But, in itself, the historical lesson does not automatically make for good drama. Even in Brecht's own plays, his audiences eschew his didactics and gravitate instead toward characters who offer an emotional link to human motives.

So, too, it happens in "The Hilo Massacre," where we respond instinctively to Ryan Sutherlan in the central role of union organizer Harry Kamoku, but not until he is pushed into asking a girl to dance and is mortified by his inability to do the steps.

Similar human touches come from snippets of women's gossip about the new sandwich called a "hamburger" and speculation about a girl dating a rich man solely to ride in his big car.

The need for human connection is ultimately recognized in the production, by rearranging to the end of the play a scene in which Kamoku offers financial help to a fired worker — adding personal emotion to a script that otherwise carefully avoids it.