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Theatre Review (LA): Three Year Swim Club by Lee Tonouchi at East West Players

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East West Players, the largest producing organization of Asian American artistic work and the longest-running professional theatre of color in the county, continues its 46th Anniversary season with a fascinating story, Three Year Swim Club by Lee Tonouchi. It is based on the true story of Soichi Sakamoto, who trained the youth of Maui to swim in plantation ditches in preparation for the Olympics. The art of the hula becomes the metaphor for competitive swimming.

The director and choreographer of this beautiful play is Keo Woolford, a dancer with the renowned Robert Cazimero’s Halua Na Kamelei O Lililehua. The playwright is a champion of Creole English, a.k.a. Pidgin, and would like to see Pidgin accepted as a legitimate language. Therefore much of the dialogue is in Pidgin and at times can be difficult to understand. But the story is really told through dance, or the moves of the hula. Soichi Sakamoto believed if these novice swimmers could master the moves of the hula they could swim competitively.

The talented cast is entirely Hawaii-born, arriving in LA after a successful run and tour in Hawaii. The cast includes Jared Asoto as the humble hero Keo, Mapuana as his lively love interest, Kelsey Chock as the hyperactive and funny but sweet Halo, Blake Kushi as the determined coach, and Kaliko Kushi as his dry-witted wife. Chris Takemoto-Gentile plays the outsider from Oahu. Sadly the 1940 Olympics were canceled but that didn’t stop these determined kids from fulfilling their swimming asperations, nor did it stop the coach, who went on to coach later Olympic teams.

This heartwarming tale lingers long after it’s over. It was one of my most memorable experiences at this theatre. Three Year Swim Club will run at East West Players until March 11.

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