With twists, turns, peaks and dips, the emotional rollercoaster of the show “Roots” left the audience at the Juliane Ethel Leilani Miller Studio Theatre heart warmed, heartbroken and hopeful this past weekend.
As the audience started to file into the theater and began to take their seats, there were sounds of gentle waves and a looping image of a beach projected onto the slightly translucent backdrop of the studio floor.
The studio itself was not large at all, and the majority of the seating contained floor seats next to where the cast was going to perform. The floor was not very large either but that didn’t really matter to Ken Yotsukura or Will Choy Edelson, who created “Roots” for their Senior Theater Arts Major Project.
As soon as people settled in, calming and nostalgic guitar music began to play. Yotsukura was seen laying on the floor as if they were relaxing on the beach, Edelson gently playing a guitar and a third performer, Jojo Leiato, playing with imaginary sand. The three performers set the scene of a relaxing beach day.
Then, Yotsukura got up and stepped on the area where Leiato was playing with the imaginary sand. Yotsukura ran away behind the backdrop and out the backdoor of the studio while Leiato and Edelson playfully chased him outside. All three of the performers moved within the rows of the studio, inches away from the audience as they played this game. The audience was laughing and it was a touching moment seeing these three friends play together.
Their chase transitioned into incredibly impressive acrobatic stunts where Yotsukura, Edelson and Leiato took turns lifting each other up performing spins, turns and jumps. At one point, Edelson had one foot on Leiato’s shoulder, the other foot on Yotsukura’s shoulder and they both raised Edelson up as he stood on their backs without any support.
The acrobatic feats alone displayed the trust the performers had with one another, further emphasizing that these three were friends on and off the stage.
Suddenly, the music changed and became more threatening and ominous. The expression on each of the performers changed into a grimace. The gentle and graceful movements became aggressive and aggravated. The warm yellow lighting turned into a harsh gray color.
The once joyful and relaxed friends turned into a free for all arena where everyone had to fight. Leiato, Yotsukura and Edelson, with pained expressions on their faces, started to push each other into the ground with enough force to rattle the seats throughout the crowd.
At this point, the show had become completely unrecognizable from what it was in the beginning. The threatening music, the shift in demeanor and the aggressive pushing completely juxtaposed the calmer and nostalgic feeling that started off the show.
Leiato and Yotsukura escaped behind the backdrop and all of the lights darkened except a singular spotlight that focused on Edelson’s body as he lay on the ground motionless.
The lights turned completely off as Edelson joined Leiato and Yotsukura behind the backdrop. Lights from the backstage shone onto the performers and created silhouettes of them onto the backdrop.
A recording of all of the performers talking over each other started to play. Phrases like “I got to make myself smaller,” “build walls, close doors” and “make everything go away,” could be heard throughout the chaos of multiple people speaking. While this recording was playing, Leiato and Yotsukura’s significantly larger silhouettes were beating Edelson’s smaller silhouette as if they were the negative thoughts invading Edelson’s psyche.
The voiceover stopped, the backstage lights turned off and Leiato and Yotsukura turned on two smaller lights.
While Edelson stood motionless, Leiato and Yotsukura moved around Edelson with the smaller lights in hand, almost representing small glimmers of hope surrounding Edelson. These smaller glimmers of hope slowly drew Edelson back from behind the backdrop into the front of the stage. Unlike before, when the acrobatics were about a feat of impressiveness to test what the three friends were truly capable of, the acrobatics performed this time were about support and reconciliation.
A video started to play as the backdrop to Edelson’s voice describing this life-changing expedition he took. Then, the video and voice changed to a memory of Yotsukura’s childhood and then it again to Leiato’s Hawaiian heritage. This portion of the performance was equal parts emotional, comedic and heartwarming, and revealed the “roots” of each of the individual performers.
The show itself was masterful in its storytelling ability. The usage of silhouettes, lighting and the entirety of the stage was done in a way to maximize all the resources that were available. The result was a performance that was impressive, emotionally raw, inspiring and hopeful.