Review: ‘Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen’ Takes On the Cringeworthy

NEW YORK — “Throw a scone,” Eliza Bent says, “and you will hit a white person who has had a brush with appropriation.”

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, New York Times

NEW YORK — “Throw a scone,” Eliza Bent says, “and you will hit a white person who has had a brush with appropriation.”

Cultural appropriation, that is — the practice of borrowing from cultures less powerful than one’s own, in the process often trampling blithely, if unwittingly, on sensitivities.

Exhibit A, in Bent’s droll and thought-provoking new solo show, “Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen,” is a movie she made with a friend for a school project in 1996, when she was growing up in an affluent, overwhelmingly white suburb of Boston. To play the starring role of Liliuokalani, the 19th-century queen of Hawaii, Bent cast her white, 13-year-old self.

“I know I’m not alone in youthful ignorance and inadvertent offensiveness,” she tells her audience in the Experimental Theater at Abrons Arts Center, before ticking off a list of blackface, brownface, yellowface and whitewashing incidents from the pasts of some white people she’s known. “If you find any of these cringeworthy, let me hear you say, ‘Cringe,'” she says.

“Cringe!” the audience said Saturday night, repeating the refrain with each squirm-inducing anecdote.

Directed by Knud Adams, who is also the production designer, “Aloha, Aloha” isn’t aiming for self-congratulation, either by the performer or her spectators. This is not a declaration of wokeness. As it turns out, the likably entertaining Bent (“Toilet Fire”) has something more urgent and complex on her mind, though the show doesn’t so much build as meander toward making that apparent.

Tiptoeing through a minefield of contemporary cultural sensitivities, Bent is determined to examine her own privilege. She seems conversely hesitant to make too much of the ways she believes she has been, or fears she will be, dismissed: as a woman, and as the wife of a better-known husband — the composer and performer Dave Malloy (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”), with whom she made the oddball musical “Black Wizard/Blue Wizard.”

That hesitancy may be part of the reason that “Aloha, Aloha” feels amorphous, as if it weren’t quite connecting its own dots. It is really about the cultural reflex of reducing and undervaluing categories of people. Bent is asking how we stop doing that, how we resist letting it be done to us — and how we call it out when we see it. (Cringe!)

At 75 minutes, the show is slack in the middle before becoming irresistibly raucous and impassioned in its final section, when Bent mercilessly, hilariously skewers her former employer, American Theater magazine, and what she describes as its hypocritical approach to diversity. But there’s self-flagellation, too, and ultimately a surprising poignancy, as she recounts a snarky piece she once wrote there, galumphing into a subculture that wasn’t hers.

She wishes that piece had gotten a better edit before it went out into the world. I wish something similar for “Aloha, Aloha” — that there’s a next iteration, clearer and sharper, that goes deeper where ent’s passions come most vividly alive.

Production Notes

‘Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen’

Through April 21 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, abronsartscenter.org.

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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