by Bill Harby
photo by G. Brad Lewis
Grinning as he sprinkles corn feed for the chickens clucking at his feet, Jason Scott Lee looks more like a blissful homesteader than an international movie star. In fact, he is both. Six years ago, soon after buying twenty-five acres of forest at the edge of Volcano Village on the Big Island, Lee planted a handful of koa saplings not far from the simple house he was having built. Today this Pearl City boy proudly points out those trees, now more than twenty feet tall. Nearby are the patch of dryland taro and the sweet potatoes he planted, the fishpond he dug and stocked with tilapia, the windmill he erected to aerate the fishpond and his new chicken coop.
For an actor with his credits—lead roles in films including Map of the Human Heart, Dragon and Lilo and Stitch, as well as a run on the West End London stage in The King and I—Lee might be more easily imagined making his home in Hollywood than in little Volcano Village. But the showbiz lifestyle is the opposite of what he seeks.
“That’s a stage out there,” says Lee, pointing outside as a heavy rain makes the giant taro leaves dance. “Culture comes from agriculture. What we create and our expression of whatever art—dance, painting, brush and ink or carving or anything—all those disciplines have agriculture as a discipline. What you do to carve uses the same muscles you use to till. Clearing land uses the same muscles you use in martial arts. And acting, the rhythm ...” Lee stops for a moment and stares out at the rain. “You may be singing in the field; it’s all the same performance.”
Lee, who is Hawaiian-Chinese, has named his land Pu Mu. In Chinese, “pu” is simplicity, “mu” is nothingness. His goal for this place: “to return to nature, to simplicity and freedom for the healing of my spirit.” Lee wrote those words for the playbill of the first production of Ulua Theatre. The theater is also an important part of Pu Mu. Lee and a friend built it almost by themselves, using ‘ohi‘a trunks harvested from the property. This intimate space is being used to produce challenging drama “with social conscience,” says Lee. He also plans workshops not just in acting and movement but also in environmental awareness and community outreach.