Play Review: “Mainland Education” by Scot Izuka

Play: “Mainland Education” by Scot Izuka
Starring: Tyler Tanabe, Shiro Kawai, Kathy Hunter, Julia Nakamoto, Christopher Takemoto-Gentile and the voices of Jason Kanda and Laura Bach Buzzell
Venue: Kumu Kahua Theater
Genre:  Comedy
Date Watched: Thursday, January 8, 2009
Showtimes:  Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through February 8, 2009
Tickets:  $16.00 General, $13 Senior, $10 Student Admission.  Thursday night specials:  $13.00 General, $11 Senior, $5.00 Student.  Available at Honolulu Box Office

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Synopsis (taken from the “Mainland Education” page on the Kumu Kahua web site)

Cultures mix, match and clash at the University of Kansas in the early 1980s. Jerome, a second-year graduate student, is a third-generation Japanese-American from Hawaii. His roommate Yan is Taiwanese and still struggling comically with the English language. They meet the outgoing and assertive Cathy, born and raised in the Midwest, and her roommate Rei, a Japanese national who speaks English well but with an accent. As the four spend time together, they attempt to surmount difficulties created not only by language barriers but also by national identities and cultural mores. Jerome is self-conscious about others’ interpretations of his Japanese appearance outside of Hawaii. He begins a relationship with Cathy but is later drawn to Rei, who is pressured by her parents about being with Jerome because, to Japanese people, he is a foreigner. As the school year progresses, the friends’ mutual understanding grows, but not without difficulties. Mainland Education is a Kumu Kahua world premiere.

Thoughts

Izuka crafts quite an emotional ride in “Mainland Education.”  At times it’s witty and funny as both Jerome (Tyler Tanabe) and Yan (Shiro Kawai) suffer from “fish outta water” syndrome adjusting to their experiences on the Mainland.  Kawai in particular was just hilarious as Taiwanese doctoral student Yan whose less than perfect English set-up for many the hilarious moment in a recurring gag throughout the play 🙂

On the flip side, Izuka crafts quite the drama that touched upon serious themes including race and relationships that often left me both on the edge of my seat at times with the strength of the drama as well as with a few uncomfortable flashbacks to relationships of my past and my friend’s past which I’d rather have not recalled.  In many ways the play for me comes across as either one of those old ABC After School Specials (with humor) or an episode of “Boy Meets World” with a local twist.

For my taste I found the play quite engaging.  The message of racial tolerance speaks loud and clear with the contrast between Jerome’s relationships with both the bubbly haole girl, English-major Cathy (brilliantly brought to life by Kathy Hunter) and reserved, Japanese national business major Rei (Julia Nakamoto).

Hunter’s performance as Cathy (who seemed more interested in earning her MRS than her English degree) was  emotionally powerful as I definitely went along the roller coaster ride with her through the dramas of her relationship with Jerome.

Tyler Tanabe’s performance of lead man Jerome was also a lot fun as we too went along his personal voyage of discovery as he sought to juggle the unenviable demands of finishing his graduate degree, finding a high-paying job and balancing (literally) his love life.  Jerome’s emotional tormet with his inability to achieve his goal (land a job) and find happiness with his love life and comfort with his views on race relations was very much palpable.

Julia Nakamoto’s performance of Rei was nicely done with her performance definitely heightening the drama.  (Note to self:  never scorn a woman — EVER).

Rounding out this talented cast is Christopher Takemoto-Gentile’s dual-performance as both a fellow student and Jerome’s job recruiter who subjects poor Jerome to the job interview and Thesis defense from hell.  Jerome’s interview scenes for me were actually among my favorite in the whole play (especially the Thesis defense).

In the “nice touches” area:  lots of cool 80’s songs (local and mainstream) punctuate the play thus building and ensuring the right mood.

The Verdict

“Mainland Education” is quite the emotional ride.  Izuka weaves together a powerful tale of race and relations punctuated with nice bits of situation comedy and a cool soundtrack to boot.  This talented cast of 5 pulls it all together to nice effect for an entertaining 2 hour ride!

The shows run through February 8, 2009 at Kumu Kahua Theater.  Tickets are available at Honolulu Box Office.

Highly Recommended!

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