The tradition of experiencing theater is one I’ve ached for, and, over the past year, my memories of great productions are ones I cherish, even as those recollections have never seemed more far away. Prior to writing this, March 6th 2020 was the last time I saw a stage show (David Belew’s “Out of Order” at the ProArts Theater in Kihei). During the past year, I’ve been inundated with Zoom theater, Zoom one-man-shows, Zoom concerts, Zoom Zumba and on and on. I appreciate the need for our performing artists to find innovative ways for their creative outlets.
Nothing can compare to the thrill of live performance, happening right in front of you, the jaw dropping marvel of watching an actor create a character and walk that role through an entire story in real time, right in front of us. Watching theater at home is not the same thing (no, not even something as polished as “Hamilton” on Disney Plus). Here’s why: with Theater, you’re sharing that space, witnessing storytelling that happens to you. There’s no rewind or refresh button, no way to see it once it’s over. With movies and TV, you can revisit great acting indefinitely but catching theater at its best is like seeing a vibrant rainbow- it happens, you marvel at it and then it’s gone, with the memory kept alive through conversation and mere memory. There’s something so precious, so unique and personal about theater, an art form that cannot be experienced at home or compared with any other form of entertainment, let alone great art.
At the moment, Maui’s community theaters remain closed. Eric Gilliom’s “White Hawaiian” has the historical distinction of being the first production to re-open on Maui since the lockdown. Normally, I wouldn’t write a theater review of a production I already saw (and covered for both MAUIWatch and Maui Time Weekly in 2019) but it’s not the same show. It’s not even the same venue, but it is theater art, an experience to share with others and, as it was the first time, a terrific production that celebrates Hawaiian culture, longevity and diversity.
“White Hawaiian,” Gilliom’s one-man show, first premiered two years ago at the McCoy Studio at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Now, it’s at Mulligans on the Blue in Kihei, which has altered a section of their restaurant into a mini-theater, complete with air conditioning, paddle fans and a cool breeze from outside, ventilating the room. Only forty people at a time are seated, in a cozy but carefully placed environment where dinner and the music of Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning Hawaiian Steel Guitar master Joel Katz sets the mood. Patrons are advised to only remain masked when on their feet. Once the production begins (which includes dynamic multi-media of short films, news reels, vintage Hawaii footage and local ad mockups), Gilliom tirelessly pours into his killer performance, in which he tells the saga of his family’s history, how it ties into Hawaii’s pre and post-statehood days, how he grew up being white with Hawaiian roots and the ups and downs of his colorful career as a performer.
Gilliom creates a number of characters based on his extended family tree, finding notes of lived-in truth to balance out the inherent comedy in the vignettes. The heart of the show is the father/son dynamic between Eric and his father, Lloyd, whom Eric brings so much heart and vigor to.
Now that Gilliom is performing in a smaller space than the McCoy (his stage creates an intimacy that feels akin to a black box theater), you feel the force of his performance to greater effect. His acting is expressive and deeply felt as ever and so is his singing. Since the show deals so generously with the down period of Gilliom’s professional life (his co-starring in an infamous Broadway turkey and the humiliation that came afterward are portrayed in uproarious segments), this is never a self-indulgence but more of a confessional. “White Hawaiian” is as inspiring and funny as it was the first time, but now, with great theater being in stark supply, it feels like soul food.
In addition to a more extensive use of film clips and monologs that have been refined, it ends with Gilliom addressing the audience and paying tribute to his late Barefoot Natives collaborator, the magnificent and sorely missed Willie K. Since so much of “White Hawaiian” celebrates the legacy of Hawaii’s entertainers, past and present, it’s a fitting touch to include a final tribute to Gilliom’s former onstage partner.
With its new home and maximum entertainment value, “White Hawaiian” is both a throwback to classic Hawaiian musical performance, a tale of perseverance in a time of dread inducing uncertainty and a reflection on the ohana we’ve lost who have shaped our lives in such profound ways. It’s also laugh-til-your-sides-ache funny and a marvel of a one man show. What Gilliom has pulled off here is personal and endearing. If Maui’s return to live theater is a series of baby steps, then here’s the first stop on the comeback trail. Thank you, Eric, and welcome back.
White Hawaiian is now playing at Mulligan’s on the Blue in Kihei. For reservations and tickets, call 808-874-1131 or go to mulligansontheblue.com for further info.