Interview by Melissa Mojo
Emma’s Last Dance, produced by Women in Theatre, will debut at Kaua‘i Community College Performance Arts Center on the last weekend of September. The play is historically based on a sugar plantation in Hawai‘i at the time of Pearl Harbor’s bombing by the Japanese. It’s full of humor and pathos and depicts Hawaii in the 1940s.
David Penhallow Scott, author and director of Emma’s Last Dance, is a fifth generation Hawaiian, and lived through those days. He grew up on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i , and witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
What was it like growing up in Hawai‘i in the 1930s?
I was born on O‘ahu in 1933, and lived there until I was seven. It was very much of an outdoor life. We lived in Manoa valley. I went to Punahou School because my mother (Anna Scott Penhallow Sloggett) was a schoolteacher there. My mother was born on Kaua‘i , so every summer we went to Kaua‘i . We’d visit Koke‘e, Hanalei and Kipu Kai, where we rode on horseback into the valley. It was like going back in time.
That was during the Great Depression?
Yes, but the Depression really didn’t affect Hawai‘i as it did on the Mainland. Hawaii had a sugar economy and sugar was considered a necessity.
How were the plantations set up?
The managers ran the plantations. The workers lived in ethnically divided camps: Japanese, Chinese, German, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Portuguese. I earned 50 cents a day picking pineapples in the summer.
Did you attend school with plantation children?
Yes. We were all friends.
Did your relatives work at the plantations?
Yes, some of them did. We’d visit them on O‘ahu. My uncle worked for Ewa Plantation, and some cousins worked on Waialua Plantation.
Did you see the bombing of Pearl Harbor?
We could hear the bombing from where we lived. We ran outside and from the hill next to us we could see the smoke and hear the whole thing. A bomb went off down on King Street and really shook the house. We drove to my aunt’s house in Punaluu, over the Pali. There were no tunnels. Driving at the speed of Superman, rounding the narrow curvy cliff road on two wheels, was terrifying.
What was it like after the bombing?
It was the end of my childhood. There was no Christmas ever again. My parents had divorced, and my mother, sister and I were on our own. The Army Corps of Engineers took over our school, and we were educated in private homes. We were fingerprinted and carried identification cards and gas masks at all times. We were inoculated with vaccines. We dug an air raid shelter in our backyard. It was like being buried alive. I remember sitting in there by myself during an air raid with the centipedes.
Did you stay in Hawai‘i?
No. We evacuated on Feb. 20, 1942. We spent 10 days on the troop ship Aquitainia and zigzagged our way to San Francisco. We were met at the dock in San Francisco, like orphans, and given warm clothing.
What was it like being on the Mainland for the first time?
I felt uprooted. I had to wear shoes all the time. We lived in our Baltimore cousins’ attic as refugees. But, I saw squirrels, rabbits, hail, fireflies and snow — and I got to spend two weeks with my Aunt Chris in Manhattan.
When did you return to Hawai‘i?
During the middle of the war. We returned to Kaua‘i after two years, and I attended sixth grade at Lihu‘e Grammar School.
How had Hawai‘i changed?
Kaua‘i was invaded — by the U.S. armed forces. I saw a lot of USO shows with Bob Hope and Pee Wee Reese taught us baseball at school. These invaders dated and married local girls. The whole social, economic and political structure changed when the Japanese soldiers of the 442nd Regiment came home, got educated under the GI Bill, and created a new Hawai‘i.
Why did you write Emma’s Last Dance?
The attack on Pearl Harbor was cataclysmic and life changed for me in an instant. All the characters in the play undergo a similar change.
Are the characters based on the people you once knew?
Some, but most came out of my imagination. They represent a time, a place and a society that once lived in Hawaii, which is now gone.
Emma’s Last Dance will debut at KCC Performing Arts Center in Puhi on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. There will be two additional performances, on Sept. 27 at 7 p.m., and on Sept. 28 at 4 p.m.
Visit www.womenintheatre.com or call 635-3727 for tickets.