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“Do I keep sinning in order to keep making art?” the playwright Eliza Bent asks, at the end of her new solo piece, Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen. The sins in question are both commonplace and ugly: Aloha, Aloha, directed by Knud Adams and playing at Abrons Arts Center, is a survey of Bent’s history as a committer of racial and cultural appropriations, in service of art and in search of laughs. Bent isn’t unusual: She’s well-informed and well-intentioned. But she’s also a white person raised in America, and her self-study, if unfinished in places, is the kind of candid introspection many of us should be undertaking — though probably funnier and sweeter than most of ours would be.
The narrative center of Aloha, Aloha is the tale of Bent’s first foray into documentary filmmaking. At age thirteen, with a friend and a shaky camcorder, she filmed a “biopic” about Hawaii’s last monarch, Liliuokalani, in which Bent portrayed the queen as a power-hungry ditz, shrieking for freedom from behind a confined bedframe and whining loudly about having been deposed. (Bent still has the footage, and shows it in full; it’s the highlight of the show.) Two years later, when her local Boston PBS station announced plans to air a documentary about Liliuokalani, Bent excitedly submitted her creation for possible broadcast. Watching WGBH’s depiction of the Hawaiian queen (the station had politely declined to air hers), Bent realized she’d been ignorant about the queen’s real story, about the forces of colonialism and racism that shaped Liliuokalani’s life. Bent had been a white person — yes, a very young one — remaking the story of a colonized person of color. For fun.
From here, the piece becomes a true confessional, a litany of minor and not-so-minor misdeeds: “funny” voices and accents Bent used to make others laugh, microaggressions she didn’t quite realize she was guilty of. At one point, Bent names off a series of thoughtlessly racist actions committed by each guest at a dinner party she once attended, asking her spectators to shout “Cringe!” after each decidedly painful anecdote. (Several guests had casually worn blackface onstage in the past; her hosts’ daughter had performed in a mostly white production of The Wiz.)
Behind Bent is a gorgeous set, designed by Adams, that goes almost completely unused. There’s a set of cloth weavings by textile artist Elizabeth Chabot: softly textured, in soothing shades of oatmeal and coral and blue. Above it, a big parachute-like fabric stretches up behind Bent and curves to the ceiling, sort of a graceful circus tent that lets gentle light in. It’s almost as if the playwright-performer couldn’t bring herself to use the set — to allow her wryly self-castigating piece to be quite that theatrically satisfying.
Redemption of a sort — forged in the crucible of a very public humiliation — emerges toward the end of Bent’s tale. As a disgruntled staff writer for American Theatre magazine, resentful of her sexist boss and of Theatre Communications Group (TCG), her stodgy institutional employer, she writes an angry takedown of two major artists who spoke together at TCG’s annual conference. She thought their appearance had been stilted and fake; as it turns out, it had made heavy use of hyperbolic expressions that were recognizable to the queer community, but unfamiliar to her.
Luckily, the artists in question were willing to accept apologies and to talk — which is Bent’s message, if she has one. (Aloha, Aloha, though delightfully engaging and sympathetic, doesn’t quite cohere into a theatrical event.) There is no shortcut to confronting our white privilege, Bent observes; no course of action besides acknowledging mistakes, apologizing, and listening. She’s not the first to say so, but she’s funny and convincing, and her cringe-worthy confessions might inspire some self-examination of your own.