Kumu Kahua Theatre will present the world premiere of O'ahu playwright Sean T.C. O'Malley's latest work Wilcox's Shot, a study of one of Hawaiian history's most interesting figures, on Thursday, Friday & Saturdays at 8 p.m on March 29, 30, 31 and April 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28; and Sundays at 2 p.m. on April 1, 15, 22, 29, 2012 (no show on April 8, due to Easter).
In 1901, Robert Kalanihiapo Wilcox, who was educated in Italy, had led rebellions in support of the monarchy, and traveled to Washington, D.C. as the first elected delegate of the Territory of Hawai'i. He was accompanied by his stylish, accomplished wife Princess Theresa Owana Ka'ohelelani La'anui.
O'Malley recreates the turn-of-the-century capital city and these two magnetic personalities. "They are two incredible people," says O'Malley. "You have this powerhouse team during an amazing time-that's what I wanted to capture."
Although some historians portray Wilcox as a fickle historic figure, in Wilcox's Shot O'Malley presents the delegate's poor legislative performance in Washington as a result of circumstance. "I try to make the case that he is a realist," says O'Malley. "He takes whatever moment he is in and says, 'Well, what will be the best direction for the Hawaiian people?' It is a more favorable interpretation than some."
Wilcox's Shot is the result of eight years of research and writing. O'Malley scoured the Library of Congress's digital newspaper collection, went through microfiche after microfiche of local newspapers at the University of Hawai'i's Hamilton Library, and read Unconquerable Rebel, Ernest Andrade's biography of Wilcox. His archival sleuthing hit a high point at Bishop Museum, where he found a handwritten note from Wilcox to Queen Lili'uokalani. "It was half in English, half in Hawaiian," says O'Malley. "It was exciting to see his handwriting right there on the paper. He asked the queen if he could stay at her house while she was in Washington for a few months in early 1902. It was during the period when his wife had returned to Hawai'i to start a newspaper, and he became ill. I think he needed a little taking care of-the queen had a Hawaiian cook with her. It gave me a little insight into his fragile state at the time. Right after that, things began to fall apart for him."
Like E.L. Doctorow did with his novel Ragtime, O'Malley weaves real and imagined events into a story of how an inspired Hawaiian patriot battled to give his country a voice, and in the process confronted political impotence, racism, and illness amid a presidential assassination, a World's Fair, and growing U.S. focus on influence in the Pacific and Asia. By writing fictional encounters with anarchist Emma Goldman, educator and black political leader Booker T. Washington, and pioneering black actor and entertainer Bert Williams, O'Malley highlights social issues of the time.
"Wilcox would have been walking into a very tough situation," says O'Malley. "He was not the first non-white in Congress, but with the post-Reconstruction South increasingly restricting the political rights of blacks, by the time Wilcox went to Congress, there were no longer any nonwhite representatives. There was not another one until the 1930s."
At the center of the play is Wilcox's relationship with Theodore Roosevelt, a turn-of-the-century bromance gone wrong. Attracted by each other's "man's man" qualities-athleticism, idealism, conviction, battle scars-and a mutual dislike of President McKinley, the two embark on a friendship that attempts to transcend politics. O'Malley uses their friendly sparring matches as a metaphor for frustration with Congress's sly gamesmanship and power plays.
O'Malley's Wilcox and his princess are characters who are tenderly loving with one another one moment, then dueling with rapier wit the next.
"The fascinating thing for me is this man's desire to do right, to support the Hawaiian people," says O'Malley. "At the same time there is an ego that he may or may not have been conscious of. And he walked into a remarkable turning point, not only in Hawaiian history, but in the history of the United States."
Special event Friday, April 6
The theater is honored to host a Talk Story session with Sean T.C. O'Malley following the play's April 6 performance. The audience is invited to remain in the theater once the play has ended to participate in a Q+A session with one of Hawai'i's premier dramatists.