I Land Combines Hula and Heritage


At once hilarious, defiant and transcendent, I Land weaves together traditional Hawai'ian hula, Hip-Hop, Hawai'ian talk story and spoken word. I Land is acclaimed actor and hula dancer Keo Woolford's moving search for the meaning of heritage in a post-modern world. In this semi-autobiographical journey, Woolford navigates the many worlds where hula lives, from backyard parties, to Hollywood kitsch, to the realm of the sacred. Along the way islands separated by geography and culture collide: a hotel hula show and a conservatory audition, Catholic high school and an evangelical church service, a moment of pop stardom and the opportunity to learn from a hula master. I Land was created by Keo Woolford in collaboration with director Roberta Uno. Choreography by Robert Cazimero and Rokafella.

In this conversation with Asia Society, Keo Woolford discusses his inspiration for the piece. In an interview, director Roberta Uno talks about how she and Keo began collaborating on I Land, and what her plans are for the future.

Interview with Ken Woolford

Your performance, I Land, is a mix of traditional Hawai'ian hula dance and chant, combined with hip hop, spoken word and even boy band hop music, based on the Hawai'ian tradition of talk story. Could you talk a little bit about what talk story is, what the form is about, and what the appeal of this form is?

Talk story is just like a very informal but very personal form, just a relating of different experiences or things that have happened to you in your life. It's sort of like campfire talk and, again, it's very casual. But it uses a lot of humor, a lot of personal experiences to relate, like an entertaining story.

And what are its origins in Hawai'i? Is it a very old form?

That's a good question. And what it probably comes from - and, you know, I'm not an expert on this - but what I'm assuming that it comes from is that our tradition was an oral tradition. Before the missionaries came we never had a written language or anything. So the things that were passed down were either through chants which told stories and which were learned without having to write them down. So I guess it just all became a part of the culture in that the stories and history and everything were passed down verbally.

Why did you decide to use humor and anger to tell your story? What purpose did these serve?

That's interesting. Did you see anger in there? [laughs] The reason that humor and anger are both in the piece is because there is the whole spectrum in our society: we really have been perceived as these happy, life-loving people - which we are for sure. But there is a deeper side and we are more complex than that one-dimensional sort of stereotype that people have. And for me personally I'm pretty much like a dork! [laughs] So I like to laugh and I'm a goofball, as I say in the show. But there's also, like, heavy pain and angst that are a part of me as well. I think that's where a lot of the humor comes from, from anger. And vice versa. Where a lot of anger is sort of not hidden, but replaced with humor in a sort of therapeutic kind of way. But, you know, you gotta bring 'em in before you slap 'em! [laughs]

You talked about this a bit in your piece but what are some of the challenges that you faced as a dancer of hula?

Well, in Hawai'i, when I first started dancing the challenges were mainly focus because hula is so serious and takes a lot of commitment. And, you know, when you're young you really don't have the same sort of focus- well, some people do but I didn't. But, again, when I was young focus was a huge problem for me. And then leaving Hawai'i, the challenges had to do with just the disconnect with the tradition that I learned back in Hawai'i and people's perceptions away from Hawai'i. That was the most difficult while I was not there. And the marginalizing of this tradition and this traditional art form and trying to explain that without a sort of demonstration because again I really do not consider myself an expert. I just know what I know. And my experiences are what I experienced. And from what I was taught and who I learned from, that wasn't understood.

Well, in your performance you talk about your experiences growing up in Hawai'i and coming to mainland America where, obviously, you were subjected to quite a bit of misunderstanding; ridicule, in fact. You also talk about your experience of having been adopted. And in the performance you ask, "What would it change to know where you've come from?" So could you tell us a little bit about what it's changed for you, just exploring your identity and your heritage in this way both in terms of your adoption as well as in terms of your sense of yourself as a Hawai'ian?

What exploring my background did for me was that it really made me realize how much experience in your life means as opposed to something that you inherit and making your life out of what you do and that being a part of who you are. Because I didn't know and because I don't know what my exact history is, I was starting from a blank slate. I mean, I do have my adopted parents, obviously. But my knowledge of their history is not very deep either. And it's something, for some reason, that we don't talk so much about. So I do understand how important blood line is for a lot of people. And it does make a lot of sense in the Hawai'ian culture because there are so few Hawai'ians left. My finding hula just happened to be something that I just really, really felt connected to and which helped me because of the way that I was taught. And the history that comes with, again, the teacher I have and his teacher and their lineage really makes me feel like I am a part of some deeper and significant history.

Your mentor in hula, Robert Cazimero, once said, "We all can be made better for daring to dance." Why does it take courage to dance? How do you think dancing can make one richer or stronger?

That is a very good question. So the dare to dance quote from my kumu, Robert Cazimero, I'm not going to put words in his mouth but what I feel that came from is that when he first opened up his all-male hula halau, hula school, males dancing hula was pretty much non-existent. The whole concept of what it meant to dance hula, because of the stereotypes, because of people thinking whatever they're thinking about someone who would dance hula, it did take courage and bravery to be that strong in yourself to not care what anybody else thought and to dance, especially with this style. The style that we have is really, really difficult and it's also very different from any other male style - where the hips are such a huge part of the movement. And to see men dancing with their hips a lot of times brings connotation of being effeminate or whatever is a sort of concept that Western ideals have placed on our culture, where before, who cares? You know, this is something that we do. And so that bravery and that, again, courage and self-belief to dance and to dance in this style, to dance with these teachers took a lot of courage, I think.

What do you think the inspiration for I Land is for you?

Wow! The inspiration for I Land initially came from Roberta Uno. She had seen a piece of work that I was working on with someone else early on. These were issues for me because I am a hula dancer and because I am a male hula dancer and because of people's either ignorance - not in the bad way, but just in not knowing - and also my pride as being a male hula dancer. I knew that if I did have something to say it would be around that. And we met through a hula community. And I've always kind of wanted to expose the male hula in the tradition that I've learned it, to a larger audience, I guess. I think it was time for it to happen. Because, again, when she first approached me I said, "Who's gonna care? Who's gonna care what I have to say? Who's gonna care, you know, and want to come see something like this?" But she just really pushed it. And from writing prompts, from questions that she had, it really, really made me realize that, wow, there is interest and there are people that would find this interesting or would want to know. And the thing is, the responsibility to do something like this is overwhelming.

Because, again, I really, really cannot stress this enough: I am by no means an expert in hula, in Hawai'ian history. But the thing that I do know best is myself and my life. So if we somehow translated and combined the two, because a large part of my experience in my life is being a hula dancer -- we just combined those together and came up with the piece.

So you say you wanted a larger audience but you were apprehensive about whether people would be interested. What kind of audience did you have in mind?

After the performances people came up to me and were like, "Oh my gosh, we had no idea. We're going to go back to Hawai'i now with a different mindset, a different perspective." Because of all the images that are associated with Hawai'i. The huge selling point to go to Hawai'i is to capitalize on the beauty, and the tourism industry is the largest industry there. The thing is that people don't realize how deep that history goes. Again, I know a fraction of a fraction about all this. But just to understand that this isn't a place that you can go and watch like a luau and think that that's part of whatever. I mean, it is. It's part of the landscape and it's accepted. But there is also a much, much deeper and richer history that goes along with it.

What I really wanted to do is expose people to my kumu - my kumu is my hula master teacher -- who I learned from. Because he really is such a significant part of the contemporary Hawai'ian renaissance, the Hawai'ian movement that has brought Hawai'ian culture back. Because, again, you know, to be Hawai'ian -- it is not cool to speak Hawai'ian -- was not good. In fact, it was forbidden for a while. And obviously, to dance hula was thought of as a heathen or vulgar dance so that was pushed underground as well. Thank god for the people who kept that going underground.

In the '70s my kumu was part of a group called the Sunday Manoa, who brought traditional Hawai'ian music back and made it popular again. He was a part of all that happened in the '70s. So I co-produced this documentary. I had this idea, you know, because I had seen a documentary in New York, actually, about two kumu from the Big Island, the Kanakaole sisters, who are no joke in the community; they are real powerhouses. So I wondered why no one has ever made a documentary about my kumu and I approached him with this idea. Two years later we have a documentary that is going around now. It won a couple of awards already. It's very powerful and educational, there is a lot about the history and more about the dance and the halau community in there - less so in my piece because my piece doesn't want to be a documentary in that sense.

Do you see this kind of search for - maybe search isn't the right word - but this attempt to reclaim some aspects of your culture as a political act in any sense?

And that's another good question. I think any sort of claim to ethnic identity or culture is a political act in itself. Especially what happened to the Hawai'ian culture and what happened to Hawai'i in general. The things like I said before, where the language is forbidden, where your traditions are taken away from you. To reclaim them is a political act in itself. And so, I mean, without being so - what is the word? Not nationalistic - but just so up in your face about it. Because there are movements happening now that have been happening for at least a decade, where it is very cut and dry. This is more a personal story and how that has bled into part of history.

Do you see yourself as an inspiration to young people in Hawai'i now?

Wow, again, that's a huge responsibility. And I have people coming up to me all the time and saying how inspiring I am and how inspiring the piece is. And that really, really makes me feel - you know, it's very, very flattering. But it's not something that I will go out and pursue. But if it happens, then, I'm all for it. Because the more stories there are - and this is one simple story. And, again, this is just like part of my story, almost half, only, of mine [laughs].

But if people are inspired to tell their stories - there is such a rich, diverse culture in Hawai'i and the experiences that happen there. I mean, it really is like its own independent nation there, independent culture. It's such an interesting place because there are so many different ethnicities. There are so many different cultures that all make up what Hawai'i is now. It's so unique to Hawai'i that to get stories out to the world, for expatriates, too, to expose people to them , it's all good for us to connect all over the world because these stories are universal too. It's just these particular experiences that happened there, if they can somehow touch - because these things are happening all over -- New York, for example, or anywhere else, it would be great.

That's another thing that inspired the piece: when I moved here I felt that there are more similarities between New York and Hawai'i than the other places that I'd been or lived because there are so many different cultures here. It's just not quite as mixed here. They're still separated a little bit here whereas everything became a part of the culture in Hawai'i. Like pigeon English, the Hawai'ian patois, where it has taken words from the Olelo Hawai'i, which is the Hawai'ian language or the Japanese version. There's Chinese, there's Portuguese, there's Filipino - and that all became a part of the Hawai'ian patois, which we call pigeon now. So at least I find the stories fascinating. I would like to see more because more people are doing stuff like that.

Seriously, there are a lot of amazing pieces of art - plays, films, TV show, paintings, all kinds of stuff. And I would just like to see more of our stories out there.

Are you going to produce more?

I would love to. Like, if that's what it takes, you know, I would love to.

Are there any future projects you have in mind at the moment?

At the moment I am working on a script for a screenplay about a male hula dancer. And I don't want to say more about that because, you know, just in case somebody else might get the idea!

But, yeah, there are a couple of other projects. I have two or three screenplays I'm working on right now. I really want to tell our stories.

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