8/11. Kainaliu. Mauka Kona.
I am, however, a long way from home. I was raised in Hilo and the majority of my family still lives there, but I haven’t spent more than five straight days on this island in close to twenty years. No good reason for that: Life, as they say, just got in the way. But lately I’ve been feeling the Big Island slip away from me—it’s becoming the place I grew up in rather than the place I call home, and it’s been undergoing a lot of change in recent years. I guess I’m hoping that, by tooling around on a motorcycle and talking story with the people I meet, I might somehow reconnect with the place.
First stop Kainaliu, where Jerry Tracy is looking for a few good men—at least one of whom can look reasonably hot in fishnet stockings. Jerry’s the director of the Aloha Performing Arts Company, a nonprofit theater troupe that, in various incarnations, has been staging plays in and around Kainaliu town since the late 1980s. In a few days, he will oversee APAC’s twelfth annual Original Play Festival—a three-day series of never-before-seen works by local playwrights. Then it’s back-to-back productions of the Rocky Horror Show and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ... that is, respectively, the star-crossed tale of a cross-dressing alien and a musical rendition of the Bible’s Joseph of Canaan story. This would be an ambitious line-up in any city, but it’s all the more remarkable in a town of population 1,467 (give or take), where there are more residents over the age of sixty-five than there are between eighteen and thirty.
“For Rocky we need a muscular young man. For Joseph, we need thirteen men—god help us!” says Jerry with a hearty laugh, his resonant voice sounding a bit like Alan Rickman (oh, you know: Harry Potter’s Professor Snape). He looks a bit like the man, too—similar nose, perhaps.
This eighteen-to-thirty arid zone isn’t really a new phenomenon in the Islands. A great many kids grow up, graduate from high school (or not) and, for a variety of reasons, take off. Economics, higher ed, big-fish-in-a-small-pond angst ... some combination of these factors caused virtually everyone I grew up with to leave the Islands. Our long-term trajectories have generally followed one of two paths: Some return, drops roots and start the cycle again; others buzz back through on rented Harleys.
In recent years, calm little Kainaliu has found itself surrounded by growth. The town sits near the border of the North and South Kona districts, and the last twenty years have seen a huge influx of new residents. The population of South Kona has risen more than 45 percent in the last twenty years; in North Kona, which includes Kailua town, it has more than doubled; in South Kohala, the next district beyond North Kona, it has tripled. Add to this an average daily population of 18,000 visitors in the Kona region, and you begin to see the town in a new light. Formerly abandoned storefronts are now brightly painted galleries and boutiques, which rub awnings with such stalwart local institutions as Oshima’s Drug Store (est. 1926). Aloha Theater, built in 1932 to entertain plantation workers, continues to serve as both landmark and town hub: It’s the first thing one sees when driving in from the Kailua direction; home not only to the majority of APAC’s productions but also to an eclectic mix of films and concert performances and a pretty good café.
Talking to Jerry, it’s easy to see how the joys and challenges of staging live theater in a small town parallel what’s going on just outside APAC’s second-story rehearsal space.
“It’s interesting how other parts of the culture have forced us to change,” says Jerry with a sigh. “As one small example, we used to have Bargain Thursdays, a discount if you came on a weeknight. But now Friday is the cheaper night, because it’s the absolute worst day for traffic—they call it the ‘Kainaliu Crawl.’”
Still, he says, APAC is lucky to make a go of it here. “Coming from the Outback, as it were, this company actually has a very urban feel to it”—and here he bursts into that full, Rickman-esque laugh—“it’s not men in tights, but men in fishnets.”