HONOLULU (KHON2) — KHON2.com was able to sit down with the noted Hawaiʻi playwright, Jackie Pualani Johnson.
Born and raised in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, Johnson has made a mark for herself as a playwright, a professor and a community organizer. In particular, her work in bringing Shakespeare to the people has garnered her exceptional praise.
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Most recently, Honolulu theatrical audiences were completely enamored with her Pidgin interpretation of a Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She titled it One Uddah Midsumma, and it is mind-blowingly good.
Johnson’s play weaves Pidgin and Elizabethan English in the most beautiful way possible. She translated the words of Shakespeare, but she did so much more than simply plodding along word for word in this translation.
She was able to create a beautiful synergy between the two languages as the actors switched back and forth between Pidgin and Elizabethan English. It was experience that made both languages pop with vibrancy and relevancy.
Johnson is a retired professor from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. She has spent her life enriching the lives of anyone who want to experience theatre, especially on Hawaii Island where she lives.
This is what she had to say about her work in translating Shakespeare.
“Part of it was functional,” she admitted. “The Hilo players are celebrating 45 years of Shakespeare in the Park, which is something that I started when I came back from college.”
Johnson explained that when she was young, she had wanderlust and moved to the continent to pursue her higher education goals. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Theatre from the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is where she burgeoned as a playwright and began to find her voice.
“You come home to your hometown… and I realized I wanted to do something to honor my culture,” said Johnson. “My gut told me that it was a time. People were starting to realize our backyard is so rich and full of local literature, of the music of course, and dance and hula in our own backyard. But still, there was a need for things in the theater to reflect our local stories.”
And she did just that. She dedicated her career to expanding theater in Hawaiʻi, spending the past 38 years as a drama professor at UH.
She has directed fully staged musicals, classic dramas and contemporary offerings from Western and Ethnic theatre realms. But it has been her work in Shakespeare that has set her apart.
She was the co-founder of the Hilo Community Players’ Shakespeare in the Park. This theatre group is celebrating 46 years. And don’t forget her extensive work in translating Shakespeare’s works in Pidgin.
Hawaii Shakespeare Festival’s Antistatic Director, Tony Pisculli, explained that like many people who live in Hawaiʻi, Johnson’s translations of Shakespeare utilize something known as code switching. It’s when groups of people communicate utilizing more than one language at a time to communicate. One example of this in the United States is called Spanglish.
“The characters are code switching throughout. It’s not entirely in Pidgin,” explained Pisculli. “Code switching is a big part of life here, that people just sort of seamlessly move between different languages, in sort of different social groups and statuses. It’s fascinating, and I think she captures that very well.”
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Johnson’s ability to embrace the essence of what Shakespeare was artistically communicating and weaving that meaning with the Pidgin language creates a truly unique experience that will make you fall in love with both Shakespeare and language.
When you have a chance, check out Johnson’s work. It is well worth your time and investment.