News Column

Tracy shares Twain's thoughts in one-man show

May 25, 2014

By Steven Mark, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser



May 25--In 1866 an up-and-coming writer named Mark Twain spent four months in the Hawaiian Islands, writing 25 stories for the Sacramento Union newspaper. In the eyes of some, it's still the best travel writing about Hawaii.

Describing Kilauea volcano, Twain wrote, "The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire!"

Jerry Tracy, artistic director of Hawaii island's Aloha Performing Arts Company, re-creates the presence and personality that produced such epic prose in his one-man show "Mark Twain Rides Again," which gets a two-day run at Manoa Valley Theatre next week.

"He's a humanist," Tracy said. "He says plain old things that people think, 'Oh yeah, I think that, too, but I never thought to say it.'"

Tracy has taken Twain's dispatches from Hawaii and integrated them with excerpts derived from other Twain works to create the show. He's performed it on the Big Island for many years, but those who have seen it there can expect something different at Manoa Valley Theatre: "a bit more about Honolulu," Tracy said.

TWAIN, WHOSE birth name was Samuel Clemens, was 31 when he came to Hawaii, still a decade away from publishing "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," with "Huckleberry Finn" appearing nine years later.

His visit included a long stay on Hawaii island, visiting not only the volcano, but also Kealakekua Bay, which prompted a dispatch that clearly sided with Native Hawaiians in the matter of Capt. Cook's slaying.

His stories include a moving description of the funeral of Princess Victoria Kamamalu, sister of the Hawaiian kings Kamehameha IV and Kamehameha V, as well as descriptions of a man eating poi that his mainland readers would have found both disgusting and hilarious, but in this day and age would probably have been considered humorous while also somewhat offensive.

Tracy integrates much of the original writing in his show, taking care to "remain true to Mr. Twain's sense of humor."

"There are sections where he talks about watching nude natives, young girls, swimming, and he goes down to watch them," Tracy said, "and there's a wonderful little section when he describes surfers and how excited he was to watch people surfing and his attempt and failure to surf. ... They're pretty comic moments."

Tracy has also revised the show after reading some previously unpublished letters and notes. They were released in 2010 and are considered Twain's autobiography.

All that study into one of America's leading literary figures has given Tracy a deep insight into Twain.

"He was a tortured soul, as most everybody who is funny is," Tracy said. "He had a really up-and-down, roller-coaster life. He was always trying get-rich schemes, and they mostly always failed."

Though Twain's visit came just a year after his initial brush with literary fame -- via his short story "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" -- his moods were mercurial.

"He was full of spunk," Tracy said. "He was still developing, but it was around that time that he considered suicide, too."

In the show, Tracy, 65, portrays Twain at age 75 reminiscing about his visit here. He'll wear the classic white linen suit and bow tie, similar to what the author often wore in public appearances.

In conversation, Tracy falls easily into the drawl that the Missouri native was known for, though a recording Twain did on wax cylinders was lost to time.

"There are many descriptions of his voice," Tracy said. "One lady thought the way he rode on the horse -- slouchy -- and the way he drawled his words, that he was drunk. That was a common comment, that people thought he was drunk, because he had no inhibitions. He would gesticulate wildly, and people thought, 'Oh my gosh.'

"I really approached (the role) with great fear and trepidation in the early years, but with great respect. But now I feel like I'm sort of channeling the old curmudgeon. I feel that he's OK with it."

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Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)