Fomer history teacher Al harrington worked his way from
television to film to regional theater.
Photo by Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
By Burl Burlingame
From 'Hawaii Five-O' to 'White Fang II,' Al Harrington knows how to slip into a role. Now he's playing Othello, a guy who doesn't fit in
When Waikiki needed a "South Pacific Man" to headline a showroom, Harrington strapped on a headband and a smile and leaped on stage.
When Walt Disney needed a canny Indian chief for "White Fang II," Harrington was cast despite a lack of professional acting training, and because the local Haida Indian tribes gave Disney the thumbs-up.
And now Harrington is playing Shakespeare's tormented Moor, Othello, in Kumu Kahua's first work of the new theater season. The production shifts the action from Mediterranean, medieval Venice, to 1830s Kauai, with Hawaiian warrior Othello dealing with Russian colonists.
But these are details. "Othello" is the most domestic and claustrophobic of Shakespeare's work, and the inner truths span all cultures.
Harrington looks anything but tormented as he sprawls on the floor of Kumu Kahua Theatre, making faces for the photographer. A big, gregarious fellow with a sly wit, Harrington said he was always "dramatically inclined, but there was some opposition to minorities seeking a drama degree at Stanford" University, so he earned a history degree instead and threw his thespian urges into history teaching.
"5-0" changed that, and Harrington said star Jack Lord was "benevolent" to local actors. Despite being already cast, Harrington went ahead and took two weeks of acting lessons, and later, as he headlined in Waikiki, the ability to shift personas became useful.
"There are two markets, really - visitors and local, and they're very different. There are only about a million local people here, and we flush about five million visitors through here a year," he said.
"What you do for visitors would be condescending for locals; so you're always trying to hit the right combination of localism and nationalism."
The only Waikiki star that came close to the right balance, said Harrington, was Don Ho, and primarily because every Vietnam soldier on R&R caught the Ho show. Ho's reputation spread across the country by military word-of-mouth.
Harrington invested his Waikiki earnings and retired comfortably, if not well. ("I've still got two kids in school," he laughs. "Maybe after.")
He began to seek roles, and in Hollywood, he's assumed to be Mexican, Indian, maybe part-black, everything but Polynesian. "I'm a generic minority person, someone of color, but that's about it."
Harrington is originally from Pago Pago.
He has another film in the can, a good-natured comedy called "Summer of the Eagle," in which he plays, once again, an Indian.
"I don't want to be limited in terms of ethnic exclusiveness, like saying if you're not a Native American, then you can't play a Native American part. That misses the whole point of acting - to become someone else.
"Me, playing a Haida chief,
isn't as much of a stretch as Kevin Costner playing an English Robin Hood," he said. "We were all the same at Babel, before being scattered around the Earth."
In "Othello," though, race and culture is very much the subtext. Othello is a black man in a white society, who achieved goals because of talent, but who can never quite fit in.
"It's a very special work in modern terms, probably the most modern of Shakespeare's work in examining mores and traditions," said Harrington, explaining why he was drawn to the role. "And King Lear would be most interesting as Hawaiian royalty."
He'd always had a soft spot for Othello, but never thought of playing him until Victoria Racimo, his co-star in "White Fang II," "whispered it in my ear." A well-known actress "of color" in Hollywood, Racimo is also an up-and-coming director in regional theater, and is directing "Othello" for Kumu Kahua.
"I thought she was joking," said Harrington. "Did I have the range? I hadn't done any acting on stage since 'HMS Pinafore' in high school at Punahou. It must be destiny that brought me to be here at this juncture.
"What I do marvel at is the absolutely great cast - Laura Bach as Desdemona, Richard MacPherson as Iago, Patrick Fujioka, Darrell Bonilla ... and Margaret Jones as Emilia. She really hits notes of truth. Poetic."
Harrington doesn't mind being cast as an "instinctive, untutored" actor among polished professionals - it increases the character's sense of otherness. Very wise of Racimo.
"I just got to hold up the scene while (the other actors) do a good job - that's the joy here," he says, modestly.
An "actor of color" can make a modest living in Hollywood playing modest character parts, and "that sounds awfully good to me!" laughed Harrington.
"Hey, I'm a character already!"
What: "Othello," Shakespeare's tragedy of an interracial marriage undermined by an outsider's deception, set in Hawaii.
When: Sept. 5-8, 12, 14, 15, 19-22, 26-29 and Oct. 2-6
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre
Cost: Friday, Saturday, Sunday $15, seniors $12, students $10 ; Wednesday and Thursday $12, students $10