Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Oscar, right, (J. Martin Romualdez) finds comfort with
Daniel (Norman M. Munoz) after a breakup with his
partner Ming in "A Language of Their own," a
Kumu Kahua Theatre production.

Mixed signals

Kumu Kahua starts its season
examining relationships and
sentiments left unspoken

By John Berger

It's the hard times and horrible moments in life that teach you who your true friends are. "It's easy to say 'no matter what' and think you mean it and have everybody believe it when things are going great," said actor Norman Munoz, one of three actors who had stayed late to work with director Harry Wong III on key scenes during a rehearsal of Kumu Kahua's season-opening production of "A Language of Their Own," opening Thursday.

"The people you think of as your friends may not be the ones who are there for you to help you when you need it, but the people who are there are amazing," Munoz said.

And that, he says, is the central theme of playwright Chay Yew's look at the life and times of Oscar and Ming. The two apparently have some issues to deal with -- what couple doesn't? -- but they seem to be on course until Oscar tests positive for HIV and abruptly ends the relationship. Is he doing it to spare Ming, or to dump Ming before Ming can dump him, or are there other factors in play? The two men are unable to reconcile and eventually try to find themselves new partners.

Alvin Chan, top, is Ming and Martin Romualdez is Oscar
in the Kumu Kahua Theatre production of "A Language
of Their Own." Ming and Oscar are a gay couple whose
interpersonal struggles increase after Oscar tests
positive for HIV.

Presenting "A Language of Their Own" is a bold move by Kumu Kahua, which hasn't been known for addressing gay themes. Other local community groups have had mixed results with similar material, although Manoa Valley Theatre was successful with separate stagings of both halves of "Angels in America" and received five Po'okela Awards for its 1999 production of "Angels in America: Perestroika."

JC Bishop, who'll be making his Hawaii theater debut as a headwaiter named Robert, says simply, "This isn't a show about AIDS.

"A lot of things that go on in the relationships are universal. The only reason HIV is relevant is because it's what causes the breakup (between Oscar and Ming), but it could have been anything. Once people get past the gay aspect, they realize that it's about people and the differences between people and cultures, and the different levels of love they have. It's about what's real and what's not real."

Bishop learned about the show through a newspaper ad, liked what he read and decided to audition cold. He thought another actor had nailed the waiter role perfectly and was delighted to learn that he was Wong's choice. Bishop came to Hawaii from California three years ago to concentrate on writing screenplays. He recently finished writing a one-man show. He describes acting in "A Language of Their Own" as "a great learning experience."

Counterclockwise from top left, Norman Munoz is
Daniel, Martin Romualdez is Oscar, Alvin Chan is
Ming and JC Bishop is Robert in the Kumu Kahua
Theatre production of "A Language of Their Own."
Sunday's rehearsal prepared for the play's
Thursday opening.

Munoz (Daniel) and Alvin Chan (Ming) are also first-timers at Kumu Kahua. Chan will be performing onstage for the first time since high school; he got in through an even more circuitous route than Bishop. Chan didn't get word of the auditions until they were over and had to convince Wong to let him audition while the front-runners were going through callbacks.

Chan and Bishop agree that Ming is the lead character and a demanding role.

"Ming goes through significant changes in how he views himself and the way he thinks, and the way he perceives love and relationships affects the people around him," Chan said.

Cultural differences -- between Chinese and Filipinos, between Asian immigrants and Caucasian Americans -- also shade and shape the relationships.

J. Martin Romualdez, a veteran of several Honolulu theater productions, completes the cast as Oscar, a man who finds it hard to express his feelings and struggles to change.

Oscar gets some encouragement from Daniel, the flamboyant over-the-top-and-out-there guy he eventually turns to after he breaks off his relationship with Ming.

Munoz says his role is "heaps of fun."

"Maybe I was dropped in there for a little bit of comic relief, but it seems like I have free rein with the character. I'm out there in a see-through shirt, blue leather pants and blue suede shoes. Daniel's memorable!"

Wong brings firsthand experience to the project since he stage-managed a production of the show in Washington, D.C., six years ago. Other members of the production team are BullDog (set design), Gerald Kawaoka (lighting) and Monica Cho (costume design).

While Bishop, the transplanted California pro, recommends the show for the depth of the script and the characters, Munoz reiterates that "A Language of Their Own" is about more than the experiences of four gay men.

"It focuses on Asian issues and gay issues, but when you look at the core problems (Oscar and Ming are dealing with), they're universal."

On stage

What: "A Language of Their Own"
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre
When: Thursday through Oct. 7, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
Cost: $15, $10 for students

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