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by Jennifer Ching, staff writer
He tried writing a novel, and it didn’t work. He tried a short story, but it, too, wasn’t the right fit. Then he wrote a play.

“ I was a writer looking for my genre, and when I wrote my first play, Pidg Latin, I found it: I was a playwright,” said Yokanaan Kearns, also known as Dr. John Kearns, HPU associate vice president for academic programs and professor of history and classical studies.

That was back in 1999, and since then, HPU’s scholar-playwright has drawn upon his two favorite worlds to create a unique blend of the local and classical on stage.

Born in California, Kearns and his family moved to Hawai‘i when he was five years old. In Hawai‘i, he experienced firsthand the ethnic tension between “locals” and “haoles” (Caucasians) in public school.

“ All my friends were local kids, and at home I was accepted because they were my neighbors and I was part of the gang. But at school, I was the fat haole kid,” Kearns explained. “So, on the inside I was a local kid, and then on the outside I was this not-local kid. And although some people deny there’s such a thing as ‘kill-haole day,’ I experienced it firsthand, and it was always terrifying.”
The conflict continued in high school when he developed an interest in the classics, a field which looks “at all aspects of the ancient Greco-Roman world” and is “maybe the most haole field there is,” he said.

He described how, after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classics from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, he escaped to the mainland for 10 years. “I didn’t want to be a minority anymore,” he explained. During those 10 years, he earned his doctorate in the classics from the University of California at Los Angeles and taught for four years at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts.

“ In L.A., there is no majority, and I was just one of many; then, in Massachusetts, I was part of the majority,” he said. “But then…that started to feel weird because I knew, on the inside, I wasn’t the same as all these other people. Because I had grown up here (Hawai‘i), I had local, Asian sensibilities, and it turned out to be really uncomfortable, being part of the majority, realizing you’re kind of an imposter.”

“ So a lot of the stuff that I write reflects the turmoil…These two sides of me: the traditional, Western, classical side and then the local, Asian, Pidgin-speaking side.”

He moved back to Hawai‘i in 1996 with his wife, Dr. Micheline Soong, associate professor of English at HPU, and their son. Four months after moving back, he was hired by HPU. Besides teaching, he has been the assistant dean for Academic Affairs (2001-2003), associate dean for General Education (2003-2004 and interim dean of the College of Business Administration (2004-2007).

In 1999 he wrote Pidg Latin, the story of a local boy, Kaimi, who only speaks Pidgin and has to learn Latin in college. Kaimi becomes a remarkable translator of Latin, but his professor doesn’t understand his translations because he translates everything into Pidgin.

Pidg Latin won the Hawai‘i Prize in the Kumu Kahua/University of Hawai‘i Playwriting Contest in 2000 and the AT&T: Onstage grant, a production award, in 2001. It was produced by Kumu Kahua Theatre and Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) in 2001, and it toured across all the islands through HTY.

“ That play (Pidg Latin) did a lot for me,” Kearns said. “Not only did it get me recognition as a playwright, but it kind of put to rest some of my feelings about growing up haole in Hawai‘i. Kaimi is able to navigate between being local and achieving in college in a very creative way, and for me, to live in my body, with my brain, I kind of have to do the same thing.”

Kearns has now written four Christmas monologues for the HTY Christmas series “Christmas Talk Story” and six plays. In most of his plays, he writes about identity issues in multicultural, multiracial and multilingual communities, according to HTY. His latest play, Maui vs. Hercules, is being performed on Saturday Feb. 23 at Tenney Theatre, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, with showtimes at 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. It features Kearns’ thematic collision of two worlds, the local and the classical, with both characters learning an important lesson in the end.

As for what’s next: “I’m negotiating with HTY on possibilities for the next project,” Kearns said. “One idea is a play about Peter Boy Kema, the boy who disappeared a number of years ago after his father claimed to have left him with a hanai auntie at the park. It seems to me that we all dropped the ball on Peter Boy. Where’s the outrage, other than bumper stickers? Can we really ‘lose’ our kids and nothing happens?

“ But I don’t write tragedies, I write comedies with serious undertones. So in the play, two representatives come from Galactic Social Services because humans have lost too many of their children.”

However, it turns out, it will likely be Kearns’ unique blend of the classical themes with local laughs and wisdom.

 

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