Hawaii known for it’s scenic beaches, lush forests and welcoming spirit also holds a troubled side like all communities do. Nothing Without a Company in association with Aloha Center Chicago presents the Chicago premiere of Pakalolo Sweet, written by Hannah Ii-Epstein this Fall under the direction by Rachel Slavick, with Lanialoha Lee as Cultural Specialist & Music Director.
Pakalolo Sweet is the second in Ii-Epstein’s drug trilogy, and the prequel to her previous Jeff Nominated play Not One Batu (2018). Pakalolo Sweet had its world debut run at Kumu Kahua Theatre in Honolulu in September 2018. It follows the story of Junior Boy, a young man in a long line of pakalolo (cannabis) growers on the Northshore of O’ahu. With a baby on the way and the exploration of his occupation, Junior Boy is faced with a struggle to do what is best for his ‘ohana. In a recent interview, playwright Hannah Ii-Epstein discusses the inspiration, intention and impact behind her latest work.
Tell me a little about your process. What sparked your interest in telling this story in trilogy format? How did you form that decision?
The Artistic Director of Kumu Kahua Theatre on Oahu, Harry Wong III, suggested a trilogy to me during the production of Not One Batu in Hawai'i. He told me to think about a trilogy in whatever way that meant to me. During that production I had a lot of folks, audience members and o'hana (family) mention that they are familiar with the meth epidemic but never knew the different ways it could have come to Hawai'i and Not One Batu explored that. William Ha'o who played Uncle Makana in Hawai'i is such an amazing actor, the choices he made with that character were so different, in a good way, from what I imagined him being. That made me want to dive deeper into William's particular portrayal of Uncle Makana, and because he's a weed dealer in Not One Batu, I decided to create Pakalolo Sweet as a response to what William brought to the stage. Thus a "drug" trilogy was beginning to form. For the third play, Aloha Fry-day the focus is on hallucinogens, following four characters (three we meet or talk about in Not One Batu and the fourth talked about in Pakalolo Sweet) as they ritualistically take hallucinogens to morn a friend who has passed away. So I suppose the forming of the decision was natural.
The playwright explains that the average audience member does not need to see all three plays to understand the larger picture of her work. Each piece is described as a stand alone work and has their own complete story, yet each individually dives deeper into the community created by Ii-Epstein. Thus, if you have the opportunity to watch all of them “you will be able to gather the scope of how people are connected to each other, how this town is struggling as a whole, and what happens or happened with the characters future and past”. A wonderful exploration of narrative structure for sure! As someone who has seen Not One Batu, I am eager to see how Ii-Epstein’s work progresses into this next piece and as she say gives light to a larger interwoven perspective.
This play is in Hawaiian Pidgin, how did you find balancing story with such a rich language?
Because Hawaiian Pidgin is rooted in English, and I do use a lighter Hawaiian Pidgin in these plays, the balance comes from simplicity. Hawaiian Pidgin was born out of the need of communication of plantation workers in the late 19th and early 20th century, they developed this language by simplifying their own languages to be able to speak with each other and ultimately they were able to have deep conversations with this new language. So the form in each play takes that concept, it is deceptively simple on the surface. Like Shakespeare, Hawaiian Pidgin has a rhythm to it, like a heartbeat, and even if you don't know the exact meaning to a certain word or phrase, the emotion behind it and the words around it makes it understandable. The balance is just to tell a good story about people who you want to care about, people you want to see succeed.
What was the thinking behind incorporating immersive theater with traditional theater? Do you think this is a format you will continue in future works?
Because Nothing Without a Company is an immersive and site-specific theatre company we decided to add about 45 minutes of audience immersion before the play proper. This accomplishes many things, the actors get to explore improv with their characters, the audience get's to hear Hawaiian Pidgin many for the first time to get used to the language, the audience get's to know the characters before witnessing their stories, and the production ends up as a two hour experience, not just a play. In the Hawai'i productions there was no immersive aspect in that way, those who go to the theatre there know what it's like to live there. Those who go to the theatre in Chicago may not have been to Hawai'i before. For this trilogy the format will continue. Overall, Nothing Without a Company will also continue to incorporate either/both immersive and site specificity in our productions.
We all have our own inspirations that help us hone in our craft and jump start our creativity. As an artist, do you have any rituals/habits before sitting down to write?
I'm more of a morning writer and have about an hour before writing for my routine, making coffee, eating breakfast, brushing my two kitties kind of stuff. I don't check my phone, I don't check my email, I don't go on social media, and I turn off my wifi for the most part. I use Final Draft Pro for writing so I don't need internet but I do end up with a lot of notes in my drafts like, "RESEARCH THE MANY WAYS TO TAKE PAYOTE" or "CALL YOUR MOM AND HAVE HER RETELL YOU THAT STORY THAT HER FATHER WOULD TELL HER ABOUT PUEOS (owls)" things like that. Once I have a completed draft with all caps notes I'll go back and add those things in. I also tend to write in uncomfortable chairs and couches, those that make me have to sit upright, those that when I am not feeling physically I know I'm in the zone. I also make sure to stand at least once every hour, even if I'm still writing I'm standing, and when I'm not writing I'm petting cats and stretching.
Ii-Epstein goes on to explain her fears of her work being misunderstood by mainland audiences. She goes on to describe the hyper-fantasized paradise from stereotyped movies, TV and even as much as vacationers who I am sure had a great vacation at a resort, but also got to “experience the culture in local towns too” aka walked down the road to the smoothie stand that’s Instagram famous. Ii-Epstein says she finds she wants to convey “that Hawai'i and the people who live there are just as messed up as any other state and any other town. I don't know if people want to believe otherwise.”
Lastly, Ii-Epstein describes what she would like audiences to walk away with.
I want to audiences to take away the feeling of being entertained and ultimately a little changed on the inside about their perspectives on Hawai'i, the Hawaiian culture, the people who live in Hawai'i, and perhaps a little more educated without them even noticing it. I want people in Chicago and the mainland to know that this culture exists, that it is living, it is not just meant to be a hula girl on your dashboard or a fake flower lei from your company's annual luau party.
Pakalolo Sweet runs September 17th to October 5th, Monday - Saturday at 7:30pm & Saturday at 4:30pm in The Coach House at Berger Park Cultural Center, 6205 N Sheridan Rd., Chicago IL. Tickets and more information can be found at NothingWithoutaCompany.org.
Additionally, could you imagine your culture, beliefs and traditions transformed into watered down versions of long standing community values, or even worse disregarded completely? There has been a strong focus on Hawaii this summer with peaceful protests against another telescope build on the Big Island at Mauna Kea. “Though I cannot make it to the Mauna right now my heart, my spirit, my ancestors, my friends, and my o'hana are there. My personal feelings is simple, leave our sacred spaces alone, there are other places and people who would welcome this telescope with open arms and lots of money so go over there,” says Ii-Epstein. Please see the links below on how to find out more about what’s happening at Manua Kea - it’s an important issue that happens globally. It’s time to stop seeing with money in our eyes and see the people in front of us. Respect native lands.
Local FB page supporting Mauna:
Official Website of Movement:
Jason Momoa’s video “WE ARE MAUNA KEA”
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!