Isle murder play has historical basis
If a man, speaking in anger, is overhead by his employees calling another man a troublemaker, and some of those employees subsequently kill the "troublemaker," is their employer responsible for the murder?
When: Continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 18.
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Tickets: $5 to $16.
Call: 536-4222 or online at kumukahua.org.
That is one of several unanswered questions that percolate through "Another Heaven," a prize-winning piece of political fiction playing at Kumu Kahua.
Playwright Eric Anderson won the Play Contest Hawai'i Prize in 2001 from Kumu Kahua and the University of Hawaii-Manoa Theatre Department for his look at the murder of Japanese-born store owner Katsu Goto on the Big Island in 1889.
As with almost all dramatizations of historic events, "Another Heaven" must be approached with caution. Some characters are composites, the sequence of certain events has been changed, most of the dialogue has been invented and the motivations of those involved -- Katsu Goto first and foremost -- remain unknown. Anderson mentions all this and more in the playbill, and mentions specifically, "the play should not be viewed strictly as a history lesson."
The phrase "this much is known" becomes the cautionary refrain as various characters introduce important scenes. The historical record appears to consist primarily of information collected by local authorities trying to identify the arsonists who set a fire at a Honokaa sugar plantation, and during a second investigation conducted by the Japanese Embassy regarding Goto's death.
This much is known: Katsu Goto came to Hawaii as a contract worker in the mid-1880s and made enough money during his three years as a field hand to buy a general store in Honokaa. Goto was apparently the only person in the area fluent in both English and Japanese, and was therefore called on to serve as a translator. He also became the Japanese field hands' spokesman in demanding "justice" from the plantation owner, and apparently also advised the workers on how they could resist the owner's demands.
This much is known: Goto was found hanging from a telephone pole on the morning of Dec. 29, 1889. His neck had been broken, but an autopsy found he died of suffocation. It could not be determined if he was alive when he was hung from the pole. Six men -- most of them Caucasians but at least one native Hawaiian -- were arrested. Four were sent to prison.
COURTESY KUMU KAHUA THEATRE
Shiro Kawai plays the doomed Katsu Goto in Kumu Kahua's "Another Heaven."
Anderson and director Sammie Choy wisely avoid presenting "Another Heaven" as an exercise in simplistic agitprop theater. Goto -- played by Shiro Kawai as a gentle but uncompromising man -- is preternaturally noble, but the Caucasian and native Hawaiian characters are more complicated.
Plantation owner Robert Overend (Frank Episale) is just another businessman struggling to make a living. He chooses not to believe his workers' complaints about their working conditions, and blames them for the arson that could bankrupt them.
Joe Mills (Patrick Torres) had the only general store in town until Goto opened a competing store next door; he watches the Japanese workers buying from Goto and fears losing both his business and his passive-aggressive wife.
Episale and Torres provide convincing, if largely unsympathetic, portraits of men trapped by circumstances and their own bad decisions.
Medeiros, the plantation luna, is an arrogant, womanizing bully with no apparent redeeming qualities but is possessed with a doglike loyalty to his employer that would do credit to a samurai.
Phillip Thomas Bullington makes Medeiros the man to hate through most of the show but also distinguishes himself in two key scenes that capture other facets of the character. In one we watch with horror as Medeiros makes a play for Mills' wife. In the other, Medeiros eloquently expresses his contempt for men who set dirty deeds in motion and then deny responsibility for them.
Brent Yoshikami (Keigoro Katsura) provides a solid foundation for Act 2 with his portrayal of the polite but persistent investigator who brings the power of two governments to bear in investigating Goto's death.