UH Hilo student from Marshall Islands creates performance art about rising sea levels in his homeland

For his final exam in an introductory theatre course, Randon Jack did a performance piece about the threat of rising sea levels on his homeland atoll of Majuro that brought tears to his professor’s eyes.

By Susan Enright.

Randon Jack
Randon Jack

This story is part of a series on UH Hilo curriculum, initiatives and projects focusing on sustainability issues.

Randon Jack, a student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who hails from the Marshall Islands, is described by his former drama professor Jackie Johnson (now retired) as being a fine student when he took a course last spring on introductory theatre.

Jack was born and raised in Majuro, Marshall Islands. He graduated from Majuro Cooperative High School and is currently a student at UH Hilo majoring in agriculture with a focus on tropical horticulture.

In Johnson’s class last spring, she shared with her students a performance piece called “Undesirable Elements” by Ping Chong & Company. Randon was moved by the performance and then felt inspired to create a work in the spirit of Ping Chong’s work when he prepared for the course’s final exam. Jack’s work is called “Ta in ‘Marshall Islands?'” (published in full at the end of this story).

Jackie Johnson
Jackie Johnson

“Randon used the style and spirit of that (Ping Chong) effort to create his own version, reflecting on life in his atoll,” explains Johnson. “While very serious in nature, it begins with a true look at life on Randon’s atoll, sketches the lifestyle and traditions he holds dear, then reflects on the fragility of it all if/when sea level rise destroys his land.”

Johnson says the powerful final performance was the highlight of the semester.

“I believe that “Ta” encapsulates the range of pride and concern Randon feels about his home,” says Johnson. “Within the piece, he crafted images that led us through daily life, then shifted our attention to what would be lost because of the rising sea dilemma. Full of poignancy, Randon delivered the work with sensitivity, smiling at the memories and allowing the weight of the inevitable to wash over us at the end of the performance. There were gasps among his classmates and I was moved to tears.”

“He took an issue that affects him personally and used the performance medium to bring it to a new level of understanding,” she adds. “The more people who hear this message, the better.”

With Jack’s permission, Johnson has been sharing his work here and there, most notably, she says, at a meeting on Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation that was recently held in Hilo by the Hawai‘i State Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The notice for the meeting, released by the Office of the Governor, notes that “climate change has the potential to profoundly impact our wellbeing and way of life. In particular, rising sea levels will increase the occurrence and severity of coastal erosion and flooding, threatening coastal communities and natural resources concentrated along low-lying shores.”

DLNR is in the process of developing a Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report in preparation for the 2018 Hawai‘i State Legislature session, and the department is soliciting input from island communities to help complete the report.

Johnson felt the Hilo meeting was the perfect venue to share Jack’s work. She attended and handed out a flyer that included a picture of Jack, a photo of the atoll, and a copy of the written version of the performance piece.

“It hit me solidly when I noticed that the people at the meeting were of my generation only,” she says. “Not a young person in the bunch. That’s when it became clear that Randon and his peers, who know what the future holds, need to help bring other young people into the picture and, hopefully, spread their concerns far and wide.”

Majuro Atoll
Marshall Islands, Micronesia: aerial view of Majuro Atoll and Lagoon; Delap, Uliga and Darrit areas (D-U-D)

Ta in “Marshall Islands?”
By Randon Jebro Jack

What do you think of
When you hear the words, Marshall Islands?
You may think that
It is a group of small islands
In the middle of the Pacific
Only about half-way between Australia and Hawaii
Only about 29 atolls and 5 islands
Flat, small islands
Maybe hotter climate than you’re used to
Just a group of islands
“Discovered” by Alonso de Salazar
Named after Captain John Marshall
Uncivilized savages
Dark skinned
A developing country in Micronesia

What do I think of,
When Ihear the words, Marshall Islands?
First of all, I cross that name! “Marshall Islands”
Sure we call ourselves Marshallese
But we have to since some British gave us his name
We are Ri-Lolelap/ap
People of Lolelaplap
The ancient name

What do I think of,
When I hear the words, Marshall lslands?
Greeting others,
“Ah iakwe waj! Ejet am mour?”
“Emman emman!”
Friendly smiles to total strangers
Having Kopiko coffee with fresh doughnuts
With the uncles playing checkers
Outside on the take-out’s tables
Smoking USA Gold cigarettes
Going to work 30 minutes to an hour,
LATE
Kids snacking on uncooked ramen
With kool-aid and lihuing powder
For breakfast
75 cents for ramen
50 cents for Kool-aid packets
And a quarter for a small bag
Of Lihuing powder
Only a buck and a quarter!

What do I think of,
When I hear the words, Marshall lslands?
Jumping on the back of a pick-up truck
Go cruising from one end of the island
To the other end
Only 30 miles
Passing by breadfruit, coconut,
And pandanus trees
Running over pot holes
Blasting the music
Looking at the ocean and lagoon side
You don’t even realize the land is so small
Going to church on a Sunday
Dozens of hand woven fans
Waving
Pops from green chewing gum
Mothers hushing their children
Singing songs from the hymn book
High pitched voices
Harmonizing basses
Reading scriptures from the bible
Back and forth

Parties
Heaps of food
A giant basin of white rice
Following with BBQ
Salads,
And other local dishes
Like bwiro,
Fermented breadfruit,
Steamed
Pork and turtle
Cooked in an underground oven
You are never hungry
For it is rude to refuse food
Live music or stereo
Songs with fast tempos
Never slow
Ladies pulling in drunkards to dance
More people join in,
Mostly old people

That was only a quick view
Now let me ask you this,
What do you think of,
When you hear the words,
Sea Level Rise?
It’s bad
So sad

What do I think of,
When I hear the words,
Sea level rise?
King tides
Becoming bigger and more frequent
Nothing our parents or grandparents
Have seen before
Waves crashing along the coasts
Where the graves face the sea
These tombs broken
Exposing coffins
Decomposed bodies
Are the deceased at peace now?
Homes broken down by the waves
Forcing families to move
But where else can they go?
Where else can we go?
We’ve no mountains to move to
We fight
Protest
Plead
For bigger nations to help us
Prevent sea level rise
Stop burning fossil fuels
But no one listens
They don’t care
As they did not care for us
When they first “discovered” us

The ri-palle,
Ri-kilmeej

Ri-China
Ri-Europe

They all have homes to retreat to
But once the islands go under
Where will we go?
There are no more islands
To sail our canoes to
We will slowly disappear
What had been given us
From generation to generation
Will we ever be able to keep them?

What do I think of
When I hear the word, home?
Ij iakwe lok aelon eo ao ijo iaar lotak ie
Melan ko ie im ial ko ie im iaio ko ie*

Ijamin ilok jen e
Bwe ijo jiku emool
Im ao lamoran indreo emman
Lok ne inaaj mej ie**

 

Translation of final passages:

*I love my home island where I was born
The surroundings, the paths, and the gatherings

**I cannot leave here
Because it is my rightful place
And it’s my lamoran [my true home where I was born/family heritage] forever
It is best for me to die here

~~~

 

About the author: Susan Enright is a public information specialist in the Office of the Chancellor. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

-UH Hilo Stories.

Also in this series

UH Hilo takes first steps toward a Certificate in Sustainability program

UH Hilo course on climate change challenges students to find solutions

UH Hilo students practice sustainable agriculture in gardens around campus