Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Dorothy Mane plays Ola, mother of a young man lost
to violence in "Ola's Son." Misa Tupou plays various
parts, including that of the son.

Police, poetry, Palolo

The tragic arc of a man's death
in a shooting reverberates
through poetry and drama

By Scott Vogel

It's a safe bet that most Hawaii residents still vividly remember the night of January 22, 1998, if only for the torrent of stories in the media, including one in the next day's Star-Bulletin.

Palolo Valley Housing residents are sad and outraged that police shot and killed a 30-year-old man in their neighborhood last night.

"Everybody's real upset at the police," said resident Auala Sefo this morning.

"All the cops should go to jail. Just because they have a uniform, they don't have a right to shoot somebody."

Rodney "Banks" Laulusa of Kaaawa, who was armed with two knives, was hit by a barrage of police gunfire after he ignored repeated warnings to put down the knives. He was pronounced dead in Queen's Hospital at 11:23 p.m. ...

Whatever your opinion of the events of January 22nd, whatever your background, the death of Rodney Laulusa seemed to demand a response. Some took to the streets in angry protest. Some came to the defense of the police. Lisa Kana'e -- being a poet -- picked up her pen.

"I guess I was in grad school when the incident happened," she said. "I was most taken by a photo of Rodney Laulusa. He looked like a friend of mine. He didn't look like a crazed, violent, horrible person. It was just such a tragedy. I just remember crying."

Dorothy Mane, left, and Misa Tupou star in "Ola's Son"
presented at the Arts at Mark's Garage.

On the heels of this emotional outpouring came the poem "Ola's Son," Kana'e's fictional account of a mother's frame of mind in the days preceding and following her son's violent death. Like Laulusa's, the death generates a media firestorm, and later a community-wide attempt at soul-searching.

Tragedy is an imitation ... of incidents arousing pity and fear. Such incidents have the very greatest effect on the mind when they occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another; they arouse more awe than if they happened accidentally and by chance. -- Aristotle's "Poetics"

Rodney Laulusa might not have known it, but the last few moments of his life were conforming too well to Aristotle's principles of tragic drama. Misa Tupou must have known it, however, from the moment he first heard Lisa Kana'e read her poem at Kumu Kahua Theatre last year. The Tonga-born actor/director couldn't get the piece out of his mind, and a few months later approached Kana'e about adapting "Ola's Son" for the stage.

"She was excited," Tupou remembered, and immediately agreed to allow a stage version without conditions. "One of the good things about this relationship is that she gave me creative freedom to interpret her poem how I see it, and that's what I've done. I'm quite fortunate."

The result of this unique artistic collaboration -- a play inspired by a poem inspired by a real-life incident -- opens Thursday at The Arts at Mark's Garage, a new performance space downtown. Dorothy Mane stars as Ola, while Tupou plays a variety of roles, including her son, a neighbor and a family uncle. Most of the dialogue comes directly from Kana'e's poem, but the staging, a unique hybrid of Western and Pacific styles, is Tupou's alone.

"I guess you could say this is my small contribution to the world of theater," he said, an artistic approach that perfectly reflects his eclectic background. While Tupou received a thorough grounding in European theater as a drama student in New Zealand (where his family relocated when he was a child), he later found himself drawn to a style known as Physical Theater. ("Basically, a person has to be physically aware of their body at all times on stage; otherwise, the performance isn't powerful enough.")

Physical Theatre may seem foreign to fans of Western drama, which tends to de-emphasize the body. But it's hardly a stretch for theater lovers in Hawaii, where Tupou relocated in 1999.

"When you watch hula, they will physically tell the story with their hands and their whole body. I immediately related to that because I was brought up dancing and singing and playing around in the style of Pacific Island performance." Nevertheless, physicalizing Kana'e's poem was an arduous process for Tupou and Mane, who spent months rehearsing the play. Their goal is to dramatize both the volatile emotions and the confusion surrounding this highly-charged subject matter, to come to terms with the Palolo Valley shooting without referencing it directly.

"I am not doing a story about the victim or the police," said Tupou. "All I've done is taken Lisa's poem and made my own interpretation. But I can't disregard the fact that this poem is born out of a tragic moment." Or that he and Laulusa share some biographical similarities. Just as Laulusa's family relocated to Hawaii from Samoa, Tupou's moved to New Zealand from Tonga, and the actor says he understands the pressures of being part of a minority culture.

"I thought about why this person was shot, and I said 'I could have gone on that same path.' But I took another path. I'm not saying that the victim was a bad person, just that it's a very emotional story, and one that I understand."

Lisa Kana'e too has an understanding of the events of January 22nd, even as she eschews a direct connection between her poem and that night. Still, it's doubtful whether "Ola's Son" would be garnering so much attention without its relationship -- however tenuous -- to its hot-button source material.

And even as Tupou and Kana'e stress that this is not a stage documentary on the life of Rodney Laulusa, one can't help thinking that one will soon be written by someone somewhere, given the perfect -- for lack of a better word -- tragic arc of Laulusa's final days.

Meanwhile, the profusion of meanings continues unchecked. By some, Laulusa will always be seen as a martyr. By others, a co-conspirator in his final, bloody fate. And for a budding, as yet unheard-of young dramatist, he may represent a third thing: an opportunity.

Ola's Son

On stage: Opens Thursday. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, through April 28
Place: The Arts at Mark's Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.
Cost: $15 at the door; $12 in advance
Call: 528-0506

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