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Alani Apio Q&A

Q&A with playwright Alani Apio

DA: Why do you write plays?

AA: I’m not a prolific writer. Ua Pau will be only my fourth produced play over the last 30 years. Writing this trilogy has been a vehicle for understanding, interpreting, and sharing my life, and the lives of those around me, in a way that, hopefully, invites contemplation and discussion of issues that impact us all. I’ve also used writing the plays, selfishly, for cathartic relief from the pain, frustration, and sorrow in my life. Writing these plays has literally provided me with a relief valve for some of my deepest struggles. Happily, they’ve been successful and useful. (The first play that I wrote was a children’s play entitled Nā Keiki o ka ʻĀina.)

DA: When did you know this was going to be a trilogy?

AA: Honestly, I’ve forgotten. Ask Harry, he says that he remembers! I didn’t start out with that intent. However, being a theatre graduate, and a bit melancholy, at some point after writing Kāmau I envisioned my own tragic Hawaiian trilogy. I was in The Oresteia, directed by Dennis [Carroll], at Kennedy Theatre in the ’88-’89 season and I remember being moved by the epic nature of a trilogy.

DA: Tell me a little about how it feels to write Ua Pau, compared to Kāmau and Kāmau A‘e. What’s different? Are there things that feel the same?

AA: After the success of Kāmau, I was encouraged to continue the story and I gained confidence in my playwriting abilities. Kāmau Aʻe was completed relatively shortly after Kāmau premiered. After Kāmau Aʻe’s success, there was a strong expectation and incentive to finish the trilogy; everyone wanted to know how the story ended. Harry and Kumu Kahua even secured me a relatively large grant to write the third play. I couldn’t do it and lost the grant.

Years started to pass by. Then a decade. Finishing the trilogy turned into sort of millstone around my neck rather than an aspiration. I’m a perfectionist, so I wouldn’t write unless I believed that I could do something equal to or greater than the first two. I’d rather never write the last play than put out something mediocre. I pretty much gave up caring if I finished it or not. But, I never really forgot about it. And, there have been numerous people over the years who would habitually ask whether I had written it or not, not the least of whom is my father. He’s always been one of my biggest supporters in this work.

At some point around 2013-ish, I realized, belatedly, why I had not been able to complete the story: I simply had not lived enough to find resolution to the storyline and characters. Although I have always been very cognizant that these plays are semi-autobiographical, I didn’t consciously comprehend how deeply they tracked my life and life experiences. I finally realized that Kāmau is roughly my life from birth to 20-ish. Kāmau Aʻe tracks my life experiences from the 20s to early 30s. So, when I had finished writing Kāmau Aʻe, I had essentially caught up with my own life. I had said all that I had to say at that point. It then took another 20-ish years, and another existential crisis to give me the material to finish the trilogy.

Then, my biggest concern was that after so long I had lost the ability, the talent, to write a good play. I deeply doubted myself. I finally figured that I’d give it a try. If it was crap, then I wouldn’t try to get it produced and just be thankful that I had written two successful plays. I wrote the first draft of what would become Ua Pau in the summer of 2017 and gave it to Harry. He thought it wasn’t crap.

DA: Looking back on Kāmau and Kāmau A‘e, do you think your feelings towards your characters and their choices have changed? If so, does this affect the writing of Ua Pau?

AA: No, not at all. I have always strived to be completely honest in my writing. These characters are very real to me because they are reflections and amalgams of people I have known—including, obviously, myself. What I’ve written is as honest a portrayal of life as I’ve experienced it as I could. Granted, it’s a fictionalized version, rather than a straight autobiography, but the choices that they’ve made were reflections of realities that I experienced. In that way, I don’t try to judge them so much as understand why we make the decisions that we do.

DA: Does your woodworking inform your playwriting? (Or, maybe, does your playwriting inform your woodworking?) What about your work as a cultural liaison and advocate?

AA: My playwriting and woodworking haven’t overlapped that much, if at all. Just two artistic outlets that I’ve pursued separately. Woodworking is much easier, that’s for sure! My work as a cultural liaison and advocate has informed my writing, for sure. But when it comes down to it, just living here and paying attention to life is what provides the grist for these stories.