Review: Kumu Kahua’s ‘Shoyu on Rice’
REVIEW BY WANDA A. ADAMS / Special to the Star-Advertiser
If the title of Kumu Kahua Theatre’s 44th season opener, “Shoyu on Rice,” sets off a loud locally incorrect bell in your head, you will love this play.
If it doesn’t, you should still see this play. You will laugh and you will learn.
Not only is Scot Izuka’s work howlingly funny, it’s about things locals know and rarely say. It’s about the deeply embedded ideas that too often unthinkingly govern our behavior. And about how, at times, we can decide not to let ourselves be governed by being local — or even just being accepted.
Like, if you’re really local, you know you don’t put shoyu (aka soy sauce) directly on rice. Okay, I’m a local and a food writer and I have been known to drizzle shoyu on rice in desperation, but only if I also have furikake and, even better, some mashed ume.
We live in a so-called mixed plate/melting pot state and everybody you meet is hapa-something and related to everyone else. But we are extremely racially prejudiced. Maybe not as much as we used to be, but in the time period of the play, the 1980s, we all were. And anyone who claims they weren’t is lying.
This is a time period when “where you ‘wen grad?” was a defining question: Where you went to high school was taken as absolute gospel as to who you were, who your parents were, how you were raised, what your potential might be. And integral to that was your race.
But the other code we used was food. Did you eat rice or potatoes? Dashi or chicken broth? Watercress or broccoli or kalamungay? Shoyu or ketchup or ko choo jang?.
The play in a nutshell is this: Imported Kansas English teacher (Miss Decker, engagingly played by Joanna Mills) is affianced to local Japanese boy. He’s out of the country; we never meet him. She’s teaching at someplace that might be Damien or St. Louis (think Catholic boy’s school uniforms) — where you go if your parents can’t afford Punahou or ‘Iolani or Hawaii Prep.
Miss Decker is trying to:
A) Learn pidgin (always good for a laugh),
B) Understand why she cannot please her soon-to-be-mother-in-law no matter how hard she tries, and
C) Understand and communicate with her students, not only when they speak pidgin but when they write their provokingly interested assigned essays.
The subplot that draws the plot together involves a thwarted romance between two students. It’s about who you really are, who you are taken to be by others, and who you decide to become. Big issues, but told in a very approachable, talk story kind of way.
There are no poor performances in this show but the big bowl of saimin wit’ plenny char sui has to go to Jim Aina, a veteran Hawaii actor most recently seen in The Actors’ Group’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” He is Dad, the man who will become the hapless Kansan’s father-in-law — if only his wife will let up about shoyu on rice.
Aina is so smart, so insightful, so likable and yet so much under his wife’s thumb that you can’t stop laughing or loving him.
Dad’s wife is played by Kat Nakano, a veteran of many theatrical projects here, and she skillfully pulls off the if-Mama-ain’t-happy-ain’t-nobody-happy vibe without making you hate her. We learn that she has forgotten a few things (such as how she almost didn’t get to marry Dad because of family opposition).
Director Reiko Ho deserves major plate lunch forks for some things so right-on and yet so subtle, as when she finally shows the haole newcomer not wearing shoes in the house without anyone commenting; the character just finally got it.
And the ‘80s music in the scene changes? Don’t get me started. I was seat dancing.
I love what playwright Izuka wrote in his author’s note in the program: “Don’t think too hard about it. Just enjoy the show.”
You will do both: think and enjoy. As my oh-so-‘80s brother would say, “Garans ballbarens.”