October 12, 2007
Landing Hard in "I Land"
By Molly Glentzer

I have never been to Hawaii but can vividly imagine the cheesy tourist hotel review -- spandex pants, Neil Diamond songs and all -- Keo Woolford so funnily portrays in his one-man show I Land, which opened Friday night at DiverseWorks.

Thanks to Woolford's deftness at slipping into personas (including Hula God, his first dance teacher; Father Nordic, a racist school teacher; a Black evangelist and several flashy women), the journey he leads in the hour-and-15-minute show is a rollicking trip. (There's no intermission.)

I Land plays out as a semi-autobiographical "talk story," a kind of elaborate stand-up routine interspersed with snippets of dance.

The most compelling character is Woolford himself, who's exploring the question, "What does it take to be a man?"

In the beginning, he has all the wrong ideas -- hanging with the violent guys on the high school football team. Running with a hard-drinking, hard-drugging club crowd. Joining a boy band! (He isn't making this part up. Woolford really did perform in the late 1990s with Brownskin, Hawaii's popular answer to 'NSync.)

The answer, finally, is embracing his heritage -- which also means shedding his baggy jeans and layered t-shirts and dancing barechested in a grass skirt. "Hula became my unbroken bloodline; my footprints and my future," he says.

His transition from goofy jokester to 'real' man takes a while (maybe a tad too long); but when Woolford launches angrily into a hip hop-inspired poem in the show's "Little Grass Shack" section, railing about plastic replicas and the Elvis effect ("Without you, I wouldn't be an exotic commodity on the mainland"), you sense an artistic payoff coming.

It does: The finale is tanscendent. There's a dance in which Woolford slips beautifully between the hip hop moves of his youth and a near-meditative state of serious hula. Then he goes for broke, donning the full, traditional regalia, moving sensuously and powerfully to the drumming and chants -- and you feel like maybe you are on the side of a volcano with him.

It's a canny way to help an audience peel away, slowly, stereotypes about Hawaiian culture that have existed since at least the 1800s.

Woolford's a riveting (and amazingly buff) dancer, tightly-wound, light and graceful all at once, with fluidity in his hips and arms that -- true to the lessons of Hula God -- does indeed mimic gently rocking waves.

His acting chops are equally refined. (It doesn't figure into this show's story, but Woolford's impressive credits include a good run as the King in The King and I on London's West End.)

One quibble: A small video screen upstage left in I Land offers up ideas for thought that sometimes seem heavy-handed. (For example, the word "scar" shows up several times, as if we didn't know this guy was wounded.) The stage is bare except for a white oval on the floor that serves as Woolford's "spotlight" area. The show was co-created and directed by Roberta Uno, with choreography by hula legend Robert Cazimero and hip hop diva Rokafella.

< Go Back to Reviews