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I Land Combines Hula and Heritage

Interview with Roberta Uno

The performance I Land is a mix of several genres (hip hop, hula, spoken word) based on the Hawai'ian tradition of "talk story." Could you say a little about this form, talk story? What are the distinguishing features of this form and how did it make this performance more effective?

When people in Hawai'i get together, it's something we naturally do - we share stories, laughter, and food. I think humor is a huge part of it - of persevering in the world, of coping, of enjoying, of moving ahead. When Keo and I first met, we shared our stories - when we begin to work together, his natural way of communicating theatrically, was less through playwriting in the formal sense, and much more based in talk story. This style becomes the narrative thread of the play.

What was the inspiration for the piece I Land?

We met in hula class where Keo was assisting Michelle Akina here in NYC for the Hawai'i Cultural Foundation and I was a haumana (hula student). Despite the fact that we are so far from the source, Hawai'i, and that we are not a formal halau, the students were very fortunate because both Michelle and Keo are exquisite dancers. At one point, Keo and I realized we both had theater backgrounds and had been hearing about each other for many years. As we got to know each other, I learned of his run as the King in "The King and I" on the West End; later, I learned that he had been in Brownskin, a hugely popular pop group, whose music I knew from the radio in Hawai'i. I felt that with that background, he must have both great performance chops and a story to tell. I asked him if he would be interested in making a solo performance. His first reaction, unlike many actors who have a solo piece in their back pocket, was, "Do you really think anyone would want to listen to me for that long?" I told him I thought so and we should get together to explore if there was anything there. We initially spent 2 ½ days working with writing prompts, improvs - from there we spent time off and on over almost 2 years to create the piece. Each year we spent a week each separately with the 2 choreographers, Robert Cazimero, his kumu hula and Rokafella, who did all the Hip-Hop work.

What distinguished I Land from other work you have directed?

I've directed and dramaturged a fair amount of solo performance - all new work. I've also worked with artists from Hawai'i and Native American artists before. But this was the first full-length work that I co-created from a blank page. Those experiences and devising new work with high school age youth in a program called Project 2050 at the theater I founded, helped me to approach this work.

When you conceived of the piece, did you have an audience in mind? What kinds of people would you like to see it and what would you like people to learn from it?

I always have an audience in mind. I see it in concentric circles. Those closest to the experience are in the center - those who are alien to it, still are in the circle, still will feel the reverberations, even if they don't understand every nuance. I would be worried if those circles were reversed and the work had to explain itself to those who don't share the same experience and those who do are only feeling echoes of truth. I'm really glad audiences were so enthusiastic in New York - I will be so interested to see how the work will speak to audiences on the West Coast and Hawai'i. I think different individuals will learn different things - and this was our challenge, how not to be didactic, but to create spaces where, like in the interpretation of hula mele, there can be multiple, personal, or hidden meanings.

Do you see this work, or any of your work, as overtly political? How does it fit into broader questions of race and exclusion in the US, and how the US has historically dealt with indigenous peoples and cultures?

Yes, the work is political on many levels. First, in terms of the images of Asian American and Asian Pacific males - they are usually invisible, emasculated, or foreign. The piece presents complex images of AA masculinity, re-inscribing these images with new meanings - power, desire for other men, the ability to code switch fluidly, etc. I was also looking at how young men of color are feared and criminalized -they are seen as angry, but we rarely have any context to understand where that anger comes from. The spoken word piece Keo wrote really speaks to his generation and the play unpacks what is inside his defiance, his courage to fight back. I like to work from visual images and one that is vivid in the show is the image of Keo in his baggy jeans and what you perceive as the waistband of his underwear showing, which is revealed onstage as a malo, a traditional loincloth beneath his contemporary youth identity. I wanted this powerful shift of images to cause people to question what they think they know when they see a young person in urban contemporary clothing - to know that there are layers that they don't know or that they may only see the edges of. Conversely, I wanted, with the final dance, for people to think twice when they see a heritage-based performance, that there is an enormous wider context and contemporary world that the dancer is part of - and that culture is not static, but is part of a continuum.

My work has always been political, not in an overt agit-prop sense, but in its themes and context. Putting a play onstage which dispels images that have been diminished or pushed to the margins - and filling that space with new context, is a political act. This play also questions policies that have forced indigenous people to prove their identity, it questions notions of authenticity, purity, and essentialized identity.

Who are the main influences on your work?

For this particular work, the hula lineage of Aunty Maike Aiu Lake; also Hip-Hop, which is strikingly like hula in that both are global and local cultural phenomena, both have been exploited in the marketplace and exist at the deepest community level. Both are often deeply misunderstood and most people think they know what they are without taking time to learn about their history and culture. As a director, I've had many influences, but I would say Barney Simon and South African theater, which often is devised work, and is told through the body, would be the largest influence for this work.

What future projects do you have in mind?

We've got to get I LAND to its world premiere in the spring. I'm also dramaturging Marc Bamuthi Joseph's Scourge, an interdisciplinary ensemble piece, that will also premiere in New York in 07. With these 2 projects on, I think the only creative time I'll have left will be to dance hula and write subway haiku.

Interviews by Nermeen Shaikh