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Cast and crew prepare to depart for the airport

Following a triumphant run at Kennedy Theatre, cast and crew of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa kabuki production, The Maiden Benten and the Bandits of the White Waves are on their way to the birthplace of kabuki to perform. This groundbreaking endeavor marks the first-ever invitation for a UH Mānoa kabuki to perform in Japan.

“It really feels like we’ve come full circle, because of course it came from Japan, and to be able to go back to Japan, performing in a theatre that’s about 150 years old…it’s pretty amazing,” said Julie Iezzi, theatre professor at UH Mānoa.

actors in in kimono holding umbrellas
2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the first known English-language kabuki performed in Hawaiʻi.

Iezzi is the director of the kabuki play that debuted in April and is performed in English, an art known as Hawaiʻi Kabuki. Hawaiʻi’s long history with kabuki stretches back to the 19th century. The traditional Japanese theatre art form is known for its ornately decorated costumes and eye-catching makeup. 2024 marks the centennial anniversary of the first known English-language kabuki ever performed in the U.S. and Hawaiʻi, which started at UH Mānoa.

Sold out shows

actors in Japanese costume for kabuki play
The production opened in April on Kennedy Theatre’s mainstage.

The journey to Japan was made possible through an invitation from government officials in Gifu City, known for its regional kabuki heritage. The UH Mānoa cast will take center stage at Gifu Seiryū Bunka Plaza in Gifu City on June 1, followed by a performance at the historic Aioi-za in Mizunami on June 2. both of which are already sold out.

“We’re able to do what we’re doing because there’s literally 100 years of history and community and support and people that are passionate about this art. For them to set that foundation for us to go to Japan from there is incredible,” said Jane Traynor, a doctoral student at UH Mānoa specializing in Asian theatre and a cast member of the production.

Traynor, originally from Calgary, aspires to follow in Iezzi’s footsteps by becoming a professor and directing Asian theatre productions in Canada.

Master training

actors in Japanese costume for kabuki play
Specialists from Japan also trained students in costume, makeup, wig styling and set design. (Photo credit: Joshua Barnes)

In preparation of the anticipated production and tour, the UH Mānoa Department of Theatre and Dance invited award-winning kabuki actors to train UH Mānoa students on-campus this spring. Student actors first learned the play in Japanese to help bolster proper intonation and delivery.

Robert Morris, an acting MFA candidate at UH Mānoa, emphasized the value of this hands-on experience.

“You can’t learn it from books,” said Morris. “You can’t learn it from videos, you have to be in the space with the people doing stuff. And so to have that is the thing. You can’t replace that.”

Master musicians from Japan also mentored students who provide a live music ensemble, spotlighting authentic Japanese singing and instruments such as the three-string shamisen, taiko drums and traditional flutes.

Funding for this historic journey is partially provided through the UH Foundation Norma Bird Nichols, PhD Asian Theatre Endowment Fund.

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