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Massie/Kahahawai – Native Degeneracy Revisited

Kīhei de Silva

Alani Apio wrote, in February 2001, of the “thousand little cuts” that contribute to the slow, almost uneventful bleeding to death of Hawaiian people and culture. “Nobody executes us. No one lynches us. No government enslaves our children or rapes our women. No citizenry chains us up and drags us from the backs of pickup trucks. No homicidal maniac gassing us. Just 1,000 little cuts to our self-esteem, self-identity, cultural pride—to our souls . . . Just enough slices to leave blood on the scene, but no actual bodies.”

Kumu Kahua’s presentation of Dennis Carroll’s Massie/Kahahawai points its finger at a considerably more blatant atrocity. It requires us—in powerful, uncomfortable, ei‘a nō fashion—to re-learn the ugliness of racism run rampant. The Massie case supplies us with much of what Apio says is missing from our litany of Hawaiian wrongs. It serves as a staggering reminder of what, in the1930s, lay behind the melting-pot façade of Hawaiian paradise. It suggests that the hands which today inflict their thousand little cuts on Apio’s generation might differ only in finesse from those that sent five dark-skinned “savages” to trial, took Joseph Kahahawai’s life, and meted out to his murderers the most unconscionable of wrist-slaps.

In 1931, Thalia Massie, the 20 year-old socialite wife of a Navy lieutenant and daughter of wealthy, Washington-connected parents, had more than a few drinks at the Ala Wai Inn, a Waikīkī nightclub frequented by Navy men. She left unescorted after allegedly arguing with an off-duty officer, and she was found two hours later with a bloodied face and broken jaw. She claimed that she had been beaten and raped repeatedly by five “local” men. The men—two Hawaiians, one hapa-Pākē, one Kepanī—had been in another part of town at the time of the attack, but the police arrested them, took them to Massie’s hospital room for identification, and summarily wrapped up their case and sent it to trial.

Like the police, the local press assumed that the five men they characterized as “subhuman brutes,” “thugs,” “degenerates,” and “fiends” were guilty of assaulting “a white woman of refinement and culture.” Despite intense military, political, and business pressure to convict the men and bury the scandal, the jury could not reconcile Massie’s testimony with the men’s alibi, with discrepancies and revisions in her re-telling of the story, with the fact that her clothing was still intact when she was found, and with the absence of physical evidence to substantiate the alleged rape. After three weeks of trial and deliberation, the jurors declared a deadlock.

The news made national headlines, and Hawaiʻi was portrayed, in editorial after editorial, as a territory unfit for self-government, a place where “the roads go through jungles, and in those remote places bands of degenerate natives lie in wait for white women driving by,” a place where “brown-skinned young bucks” are free to unleash the all-too-familiar “lust of mixed breeds for white women.”

In the meantime, Massie’s family, friends, and supporters took matters into their own hands. First, Henry Ida (one of the defendants) was kidnapped, belt-whipped, and beaten unconscious by a group of sailors. Then “groups of men in dungarees” (presumably sailors), “launched pitched battles in various sections of the city with civilian gangs” (presumably locals).” Finally, Massie’s husband Thomas, her mother Grace Bell Fortescue, and two enlisted Navy men abducted one of the Hawaiians, Joseph Kahahawai, tried to extract a confession from him, and subsequently shot him dead. Three of his murderers (Massie, Fortescue, and one of the sailors) were arrested on their way to dump the evidence in East Honolulu; police found Kahahawai’s nude, blanket-wrapped body in the trunk of a car occupied by Massie’s vigilantes.

The famous Monkey-trial lawyer Clarence Darrow was hired, at considerable expense, to defend the four. Darrow—and newspapers across America—justified the actions of the new defendants as an “honor killing” meted out in retribution for the gang rape of Thalia Massie. Customary, “unwritten law,” Darrow contended in KKK fashion, required that the accused should be set free.

Despite enormous pressure to exonerate the Massie four, the predominantly white jury (seven haole, two Pākē, and two hapa-Hawai‘i—most of whom were employed by firms connected to the very interests that were clamoring for acquittal) voted its conscience and found the defendants guilty of manslaughter.

Legislators and newspapers across the country howled over this perceived travesty of justice. In a telegram sent to the territorial government, 103 members of the U. S. House threatened, to impose martial law if the people of Hawaiʻi proved themselves incapable of enlightened self-rule. The New York Evening Post urged, in language ironically reminiscent of a certain 1893 event, that a "U. S. battleship pull the four out of Hawaii, that Governor Judd be removed, and that the islands be placed under martial law." Admiral Yates Stirling, the highest ranking Naval officer in the islands, offered much the same solution, arguing that martial law was necessary in Hawai‘i because, “Under our own democratic form of government the maintenance of white prestige has become increasingly difficult."

Territorial Governor Lawrence Judd folded where judge and jury had not. Daunted by the prospects of martial law and economic standstill, intimidated by the big guns of Congress, Navy, business, and press, he commuted the 10-year sentences of the convicted murderers to a single hour spent in his office over what is rumored to have been drinks and small-talk. A few days later, Fortescue, the Massies, the two convicted sailors, and Clarence Darrow boarded a luxury liner and sailed away, never to return again. A few months later, a Territory-funded, formal investigation into the original rape charges cleared the five locals completely. The investigation, conducted by a continent-based detective agency, demonstrated categorically that the five did not assault Thalia Massie in any fashion and concluded that the rape itself was probably fabricated by the unstable socialite.

Kumu Kahua’s production of Massie/Kahahawai is not at all pleasant to sit through. It shouldn’t be. Its excesses of choreography, posture, delivery, didacticism, and stage business drive home, in often painful fashion, the need for a disconnect between the play and reality, between racism and humanity. What we witness on stage are the flickering, often asynchronous sounds and images of puppet-lives projected through bigotry’s warped and dehumanizing lens. Both director and playwright, Harry Wong III and Dennis Carroll, refuse to go easy on us. Wong cannot let us forget that we are watching what the Advertiser’s drama critic Josephy Rosmiarek faults as a “theatrical representation of the life exaggerated to the point of absurdity.” Carol (whose script consists entirely of language taken from trial records and secondary sources) cannot allow us the luxury of knowing more about everyone than his character-limiting, “compiled dialog can deliver.” To compromise, to ease up, would constitute a betrayal of the deadly absurdity of the Massie case and the character-limiting nature of its dark assumptions. The result is a virulent form of theatrical shock therapy. We come away from the Merchant St. playhouse yearning like Rozmiarek for relief from “the rubbing of audience noses in something we’d prefer not to squarely confront,” yearning “to know more about relationships between Thalia and her husband,” yearning “to know the rape defendants as real young men with hopes and flaws,” and yearning, even, “for deeper insights into Thalia’s mother . . . who set out to force a confession and ended up brazenly justifying a murder.” Rosmiarek comes away disgruntled, disappointed by the play’s lack of dimension and triumph of “style over substance.” It has fatigued him. We come away in an altered but dissimilar state. Instructed by that same terrible triumph, we find ourselves more vigilant, moved out of the comfort-zone of a thousand tiny cuts. We would put a tongue in every cut however deep and bid those mouths to speak that they might move the stones of our land—and those who eat them—to rise up and cry: Enough.