When you think of hula dancing, you probably imagine something cheesy and touristy. I Land, written and performed by Keo Woolford, demonstrates the beauty and meaning of this ancient sacred dance. Woolford -- his first name is pronounced "kay-oh, like okay backwards," as he explains in a scene depicting an audition to CalArts -- guides us through the dance's power, in a show that blends comedy and dance with a coming-of-age story. Director Roberta Uno, also credited as co-creator, deftly interweaves the different moods of the play.
Woolford's story begins when as a child he first sees a hula dance, at an outdoor barbecue. He doesn't know much about his Hawaiian identity; the only dance he and his assimilated friends know is disco. His fascination with all things hula will lead to profound changes in his life.
Woolford's impressive physicality makes up for a few holes in the text and moments of overacting. With his glossy black hair and rippling muscles, his hip-hop moves and hula chants command attention. His interesting search for identity includes an unprovoked attack on a white boy on the unofficial "Kill Haole Day" (a Haole is a Caucasian) at his Catholic school, an unrequited crush on an older boy he calls "hula god," a failed sojourn in L.A., and a career as the "goofy" one in a boy band called Da Brown BoyZ. The terrific Brown BoyZ routine turns the entire audience into a group of breathless 12-year-olds.
Like Woolford himself, the show waffles between embracing and protesting the commercialization of Hawaiian culture. The spoken poem "Your Little Grass Shack," an angry denunciation of cultural colonization, would have been more convincing if Woolford hadn't joyfully participated in such colonization to advance his career, including his boy-band stint and dancing in a show so corny it uses Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." as its finale. Still, whatever it took to get Woolford to commit to hula dancing, the result inspires and exhilarates. This is theatre that takes you somewhere new.
Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company at the Culture Project, 55 Mercer St., NYC. April 29-May 13. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com or www.ma-yitheatre.org.