Identity Theft
by Lisa Ann Williamson
Thursday November 15, 2007, 1:00 AM
This week's cover of AWE.

Keo Woolford won't stand still for having Island culture "bastardized."

The Hawaii-born performer is too busy challenging racial and sexual stereotypes to a dance off in his acclaimed one-man show "I-Land," which plays the Center for the Arts Saturday night.

"I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder as a proud hula dancer," Woolford has said, referencing the "effeminate" connotations of male hula, as well as its historic marginalization as a novelty act. "When I see or hear people who disregard the sacredness or seriousness and spirituality and history of hula, it bothers me."

He certainly didn't see this intense commitment to heritage coming as a kid "being brought up in contemporary society where we are very influenced by MTV and hip-hop," Woolford told AWE, from his Los Angeles home during a short break from his national tour.

Woolford grew up playing baseball but got sidetracked during high school when partying became a priority. After a brush with gang life, he landed on his feet in the popular boy band Brownskins. Still, it wasn't until he left home as a teen to tour (Brownskins opened for Graniteville native Christina Aguilera in 2000) that he longed for roots.

Woolford eventually found them -- and himself -- when he started studying hula with "kumu" Robert Cazimero and his all-male troupe, Halua Na Kamalei.

What started as a possible answer to an internal struggle between maintaining tradition and defining cool has landed Woolford squarely where he feels blessed to be: On stage.

After international hula tours, multiple TV and film appearances and a 400-performance run as the title character in "The King and I" at London's Palladium Theatre, he's on his own with a provocative show that's been called everything from "powerful and seductive" (The Village Voice) to "electrifying" (

His intensely personal (and surprisingly funny) quest for self-discovery is the basis of "I-Land," a multi-media mix of hula, hip-hop, spoken-word and video. The show's details may be specific to Woolford, but "trying to find your path and who you are is something that everybody can understand," said Woolford, who will also lead a "Tutus to Grass skirts" technique class tonight for the Staten Island Ballet.

Woolford said the respect and discipline he learned from hula training is central to his success. A traditional oli (chant) now serves as his pre-show warm-up.

"When I chant I feel like I have my home, I have my family, I have my friends and all this history and ancestors backing me so I have nothing to be afraid of," said Woolford, who while he shares many aspects of his life, does not divulge his age.

After his West End run as the King of Siam, Woolford settled in New York City to study acting.

"It was on Manhattan island when the idea came about to write this show ... I was noticing how the two cultures -- O'ahu and Manhattan -- had similarities and differences and how they embodied me," Woolford said. "While I had the Hawaiian tradition, I was part of the U.S. and influenced by the contemporary urban culture happening outside of Hawai'i. I love hip-hop, MTV, pop culture in general. And the idea of 'I-Land' was the journey of discovery, searching for myself and finding and realizing, like an alchemist, that it's all here in the first place."

He later met Roberta Uno, founder of the New World Theatre in Amhearst, Mass., at a hula class. Recognizing the seeds of a good story, Uno became co-creator and director of "I-Land."

Initially "I-Land," with choreography by Cazimero and Rokafella, was to be presented as a one-night workshop at the Asian Society in Manhattan. That one night became three, followed by a run in Los Angeles, another run Off-Broadway at the Ma-Yi Theater Company and now a tour and a nomination for an Ovation award in Los Angeles.

"I never thought I was going to be an actor, now that's all I think I was meant to do," he said. "... This show reconnected me, in stronger and deeper ways, with Hawaiian culture. You don't know what you got until it's gone."

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin & Honolulu Advertiser contributed to this report.

Contact AWE theater writer Lisa Ann Williamson at

< Go Back to Reviews