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'Three Year Swim Club' tells true story of Hawaiian Olympic swimmers

By Claire Pires
Published: Monday, February 20, 2012, at 03:01PM
Michael Lamont

"Three Year Swim Club" runs until Mar. 11

Known as “the nation’s pre-eminent Asian American theater troupe,” the East West Players offer a production of “Three Year Swim Club” that encompasses Hawaiian culture in an inspirational narrative.

It tells the true story of an elementary school science teacher, Soichi Sakamoto, working in Maui in the 1930s. Sakamoto took four swimmers and in three years, taught them to swim competitively in the irrigation plantation ditches of the island, ultimately jumpstarting their path to the Olympics. The play is full of humor, quick wit, historical references, and the colorful culture of Hawaii.

“Swim Club” offers political commentary on the historical relations between the U.S. and the islands of Hawaii in the context of a burgeoning WWII. Against this backdrop, the students strive to accomplish their Olympic goals. Sakamoto (Blake Kushi) explains that the five Olympic rings represent the inhabited continents: “When nations unite, much can be accomplished.”

The onstage camaraderie between the four swimmers (Jared Asato, Kelsey Chock, Christopher Takemoto-Gentile, and Mapuana Makia) is palpable. In particular, the female character “Fudge” (Makia) is especially convincing as a driven woman restricted by ‘30s societal constraints; she said all she is expected to do is “marry someone who goes to college.”

The real star of the play is the hula dancing though. The director, Keo Woolford, said he jumped at the chance to direct because he (who is also a hula dancer) loved the concept of metaphorically representing the action of swimming through hula. The result is beautiful.

The design was crucial to the success of the production and a real sense of Hawaii was achieved by using a projection screen displaying images of sugar cane and beaches and lighting that juxtaposed blue and earth tones.

Woolford was adamant about casting actors who could speak in the Pidgin dialect. Pidgin is a Hawaiian dialect unique to Hawaii, and though very different, it was easy to understand onstage. Additionally, he said every actor was either born or raised in Hawaii.

Woolford said of the play: “It shows that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.”

Three Year Swim Club by Lee Tonouchi runs at East West Players from February 9-March 11, 2012. Click here to purchase tickets Claire Pires is a junior at the University of Southern California double majoring in Broadcast & Digital Journalism and Theatre. This is her first contribution to


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