American history entertains in 'Stripes'


POSTED: Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What do Abraham Lincoln, the Titanic and the Dust Bowl have in common? That the iconic president, the famed luxury liner and the dimly remembered ecological disaster have anything in common at all is one of the “;surprises”; as multitalented James B. McCarthy stars in Honolulu Theatre for Youth's production of “;Stripes & Stars: A Surprising History of the United States”; at Tenney Theatre.

McCarthy's 55-minute look at American history is well paced and entertaining. It also makes good use of his talents as an actor, musician, writer and storyteller. Director Eric Johnson and several members of the HTY artistic staff add impact to McCarthy's performance with imaginative lighting effects and extensive use of projected images.

McCarthy opens with an American Indian story about how wily Coyote helped five wolves reach the stars. From that point on, however, his stories derive from the experiences of other Americans—European-Americans, African-Americans and residents of Hawaii—in fact and legend from 1776 to the present.

McCarthy admits to the audience that the story of George Washington and Betsy Ross designing the original “;stars and stripes”; flag is legend, not documented fact, but it's a good story anyway. Ross is one of the first female characters he brings into the action; the audience enjoyed his portrayal of her in the early matinee show last Saturday.

        » Where: Tenney Theatre, St. Andrew's Cathedral
        » When: 4:30 p.m. Saturdays through Nov. 14
        » Cost: $16 general; $8 for children, college students with ID, and 60 and older
        » Info: 839-9885 or htyweb.org

Other stories include the Irish escaping the Potato Famine of the 1840s to build railroads in America, the arduous trek of would-be millionaires to California during the Gold Rush, and the great cattle drives.

Audience participation is easy. McCarthy's account of the Gold Rush becomes a call-and-response segment with the audience saying “;Gold!”; on his cue. Several audience members serve brief stints as sailors on a California-bound ship. Everybody sings “;Home on the Range.”;

Several stories connect the past with the present. McCarthy mentions that an American Indian astronaut “;followed”; Coyote's path to the stars in 2002. A sailmaker, discovering that Gold Rush miners needed durable trousers, becomes a tailor and invents Levi's jeans. The flag of the United States evolves from 13 stars to 50.

Although most of this is light entertainment, McCarthy includes darker material. He mentions that women fought for independence in the Revolutionary War but didn't get the right to vote until 1920. There were members of Congress who voted against granting Hawaii statehood in 1959, and, he notes without additional comment, the 100 percent native Hawaiian population of Niihau voted against it, as well.

One of the longest and most dramatic stories is about an impoverished African-American woman who froze to death after a white bus driver refused to let her ride because she was 5 cents short of the fare.

HTY's recommendation that the show is geared for age 5 and older should be heeded. Several people brought younger children on Saturday, and the toddlers became intrusively noisy as McCarthy was telling his final tales.