story by Helene West
photos courtesy Kennedy Theater
When Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak was a girl of eight, living in Wichita, Kansas, her father came home one day and announced he had accepted a diplomatic posting in Rangoon. Rangoon, Burma. The family moved halfway across the planet and into a magical world. And for Elizabeth, a child who “had been in love with performance, dance and theater since I can remember,” it was the beginning of a thrilling time. “It opened up my eyes to a whole world of performing arts,” she recalls. Elizabeth had studied ballet in Kansas since the age of three—though that, she confesses laughingly, had been imposed on her because she’d been born pigeon-toed. In Burma she righted her feet and dance became a passion—she performed with the Rangoon City Ballet and also became a protégé of the country’s leading traditional dance artists, the Po Sein family.
But the best was yet to come. After graduating from the University of Iowa with a double major in Chinese and theater, Wichmann-Walczak came to the Islands to become Professor James Brandon’s first graduate assistant in the University of Hawai‘i’s then-fledgling Asian Theatre Program. From Honolulu she traveled to China in 1979 to research a doctoral thesis on jingju, or Chinese opera. True to form, she went determined not only to study theory, but to perform.
She was a huge hit. “I was as famous in China as Michael Jackson was in America at that time,” she says of becoming the first non-Chinese to perform jingju in China. “I became the poster child for the renewal of a U.S.-China cultural exchange.” She was mobbed for autographs. Whenever she needed something from a government agency, agents would demand that she first sing for them.
“It was absolutely amazing,” she recalls. And helpful, too, she adds, because in those closed times, her studies were technically illegal under Chinese law, and she could have been arrested for espionage.
When she got back to UH, Elizabeth became a professor in the drama department and immediately began raising money to stage the world’s first-ever English-language jingju. It premiered in 1985, a groundbreaking production that went on to travel to Beijing and Shanghai—and to mark the emergence of the university’s Asian Theatre Program as one of the world’s best.