Writer and performer Eliza Bent‘s latest play, “Aloha, Aloha or When I Was Queen,” premiered this past weekend at Abrons Arts Center. The one woman show, directed by Knud Adams, is a bright, thought-provoking personal journey that delves into her own history of unwitting white privilege, while boldly investigating many modern day ramifications of cultural appropriation.
Beginning with a home movie starring her 13-year old self as Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, Bent relays her childhood experiences — growing up with unrecognized bias in her white, upper middle-class suburb of Boston — as she examines their cringe-worthiness, in retrospect.
“In our research, if you can call it that,” she admits early in the show, “we had determined that Queen Lili-kalani was in fact kind of a bad seed. The main piece of evidence that led us to believe this, the only piece really, was a line we had read in an encyclopedia, which stated, ‘ “Queen Lili-kalani collected guns in private.” ‘
It’s not until a few years later, while watching a PBS documentary about “Hawaii’s Last Monarch,” does she discover that — not only had they been pronouncing the Queen’s name wrong — but Liliuokalani was in fact, “trying to protect her island nation and fight against the “white tide” of colonialism.”
20 years later, these experiences lead Bent to a re-examination of the stories she grew up with, and the realization that they were drenched in unfortunate layers of cultural appropriation. Bent shares, with humor and a confessional undertone, all the voices and accents of the people in her life whom she used to pride herself in mimicking.
She paints the pictures from her childhood that lead her to an isolating experience at a conservative college, as well as the chauvinism that she is forced to reckon with once she begins her career as a journalist. She leads the audience through her forays into the white fashion industry and the surprising hypocrisy she encounters in the theater world (Bent is a former senior writer at American Theatre magazine.)
Challenging herself to reckon honestly with the complexities we all encounter, on a daily basis, in this current age of “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter,” while keeping us entertained, results in an engaging and insightful evening.
“Aloha, Aloha or When I Was Queen” runs Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm at Abrons Experimental Theatre, through April 21st. You can buy tickets here.