Prior to the arrival of man, Hawai’i had no predators. This begat a flyless fly, over 100 mintless mints, and thornless raspberries. This situation is also reflected, in a sense, in the evolutionary experiences of early Polynesians, who had no defenses for the cholera, measles, and venereal diseases brought by the British.
Three Year Swim Club, the new production at East West Players, breezes blissfully by like the paradisiacal swaying of the hula it incorporates. Yet without a villain onboard, it carries less impact than it might otherwise.
The play is about the little-told story of Soichi Sakamoto, who founded what became Three Year Swim Club on the island of Mau’i. Determined that his swim students make the 1940 Olympics, but lacking resources, Sakamoto trained his students in plantation irrigation ditches beginning in 1937.
In the play, we follow the path of Sakamoto’s four protégés as they come under his tutelage and eventually meet with phenomenal success. They gain strength by swimming against the current of the plantation ditches as well as conventionality of thought against kanaka maolis (native Hawai’ians), Mau’i plantation workers, and islanders in general.
In this telling, the students — along with the audience — never realize their goal because of the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, but they do meet with success at a Honolulu swim meet, which was considered big time for Mau’i locals. Their later achievements are reported in a quick rundown at the end of the play in which we are told they include the winning of Olympic medals. Sakamoto was made assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic team in 1952 and 1956, and was later inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
While the students’ one-upping of each other, their internal struggles, prejudice, and the impending war are all compelling, dramatic conflicts, these exterior antagonists aren’t brought to the forefront in the play. War, for instance, is heard about mostly via a radio. Haole (white people) mistreatment is merely referred to. And the students’ difficult personal lives are talked about but little seen. It’s detrimental to have antagonists lurk only in the shadows; because of this, the work loses impact. Without the rising and falling conflict an antagonist can supply, the play has an upstream battle in getting us to cheer and be moved when the team coalesces and rallies with their motto, “Olympics first. Olympics always.”
The performers, like the actual swimmers they portray, overcome this script-borne deficit handily. Jared Asato is particularly effective as the good-hearted, quiet innocent who emerges as the most accomplished of the team. And Kelsey Chock balances his character’s large ego with such charisma and charm that we’re not at all compelled to hold him underwater for an extended period (as is the custom among some horseplaying swimmers). Kaliko Kauahi, Mapuana Makia, Christopher Takemoto-Gentile are all impressive, while Blake Kushi imbues heart and determination into Sakamoto — though his youthful looks work against him a bit as far as believability in his elder statesmen role.
The play was directed by multi-talented performer Keo Woolford. Woolford also choreographed the hula sequences ingeniously used to represent swimming, an effective and beautiful choice. The majority of the cast had to learn to dance for the show, but that wasn’t obvious, as they all performed competently. Again, Woolford is working from a script deficit, what with the lack of rising and falling action in the text, but he managed to bring heart to the work nevertheless.
Because of the villainless story, it was difficult for me to be satisfied with anything short of an Olympic Gold medal, though the play’s message is to be a champion in life. The push-and-pull of having to fight an antagonist can make the smallest win a victory.
Another motto used by the coach in the play was “Steady Steady,” but in the dramatization of any story, ebbing and flowing waves will often tell a story more effectively than steady, still script waters. While the tenderness with which this story is told still takes root in your heart, I’d have liked to swim, and sink, more along with the plot and characters.