Student Tribute: Rest in Love, Danielle Kwami

Danielle Kwami’s passing was an unexpected and grave loss to those she knew, but also to the entire theatre community. She will be greatly missed.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Two women performing on stage.
Danielle Kwami (left) as Maureen, and her castmate Autumn Miyares-Thompson as Joanne, in UH Hilo’s production of RENT, April 2019. Kwami’s rendition of “Take Me Or Leave Me” alongside fellow costar Miyares-Thompson was a total showstopper. Photo credit: Leah Wilson.

Danielle Kwami was a vibrant energy and rising star within the Hilo theatre community. Her active participation as a performing arts student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and her commitment to her craft will be dearly missed. Kwami’s sudden passing over the summer at age 27 was a devastating loss. However, her inspiring talent and love for performing continues to live on through the memories of those who knew her.

Justina Mattos, UH Hilo assistant professor of drama, worked closely with Kwami as a mentor and director. Mattos first met Kwami when she came to check out the Performing Arts Center. Kwami had recently moved to Hilo from New Jersey after completing her Certificate in Floral Design at Mercer Community College in 2017 (see Danielle Kwami Takes Skills to Hawaii, Mercer News, Aug. 13, 2017).

“[Danielle] eventually did begin auditioning for things, performed in a couple of productions, moved away for a little while, and then came back and enrolled at UH Hilo,” says Mattos.

One of Kwami’s most notable performances was her lead role in the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center’s spring 2019 production of RENT. She played the part of Maureen, a zany and flirtatious performance activist. A role originally played by Idina Menzel, Kwami had some large shoes to fill—and fill them she did. In her character’s popular monologue called “Over the Moon,” she talks about many, many things including Cyberland, suicidal Mickey Mouse, Diet Coke, milk, and best of all… cows. Kwami’s fervent voice had the audience MOOOOOO-ING until the cows came home. Her rendition of “Take Me Or Leave Me” alongside fellow costar Autumn Miyares-Thompson was a total showstopper.

“When Danielle auditioned for RENT, our musical director was doing the singing auditions in a different building, and he came back after her audition, blown away by the power of her voice. He said the room was literally vibrating,” recounts Mattos.

As demanding as the role of Maureen was, Kwami was also simultaneously involved in Aladdin Jr. Directed by Larry Reitzer, Kwami was cast in numerous roles including a fortune teller, lady in waiting, and Agrabahn.

A dozen or so students sit at long table reading from script. Back of heads of three or four observers in foreground.
Danielle Kwami (far left) and castmates at the first table read for Aladdin Jr. Photo courtesy of Larry Reitzer.

When reminiscing about his first encounter with Kwami, Reitzer remembers, “I met Danielle when she came in to audition for my production of Aladdin. The production was supposed to feature about two hundred young people. When Danielle walked in, she was a bit older than most of the other people auditioning and she had a wonderful cool and confident air about her. She wore an army jacket, had her signature dreadlocks and her never-ending smile. I asked her what part she was auditioning for, she said, ‘Jasmine. Or any part. I don’t care. I just want to be in the show.’ I explained, ‘You do know there will be about 200 kids on that stage.’ Expecting her to run immediately out the door, she said, ‘I love kids. If you need any help with them onstage or backstage, I can help you.’ And she did.”

Besides acting as her director, Reizter also spoke with Kwami about her dreams and offered advice on how to best achieve them. She expressed that she’d love to one day perform on Broadway and Reitzer encouraged her to move to New York and explore this path by going to auditions. Recognizing her individuality, he also urged her to consider a possible career in television.

“Danielle was unique and unique doesn’t always translate on Broadway where they look for cookie-cutter chorus members that blend together,” says Reitzer. “In television, she might have a chance to embrace and celebrate who she is and add something to a cast. She agreed that might be something worth exploring and seemed excited to pursue that. A week before Danielle passed, I had a Zoom lecture with two successful television actors. I encouraged Danielle to attend as she would have an opportunity to hear their stor[ies] and ask them some questions. She did attend and when it came time to ask questions, she was the first person I called on.”

If Kwami wasn’t performing or rehearsing for a show, she spent much of her time working with kids. As she expressed to Reitzer, she loved them. In fact, her interest in helping youth was exactly how she met dear friend, fellow performer, and coworker, Mimi Tincher.

“Danielle walked into the [East Hawai‘i Cultural Center] one summer, I think it was 2018, when Lisa Taylor and I were starting summer camp,” remembers Tincher. “The summer camp was only [a] week long with plans to put on a show by the end of the week, a rather huge accomplishment. We must have had about 30 kids with 3-4 teachers. Danielle was like our guardian angel, she basically just walked in off the street and was like, ‘Can I help?’ We were like, ‘Yes!’ and we put her to work right away. She was amazing with the kids and really helped us out that week.”

Shortly after, Tincher, an educator at Kea‘au Elementary School, helped Kwami get a job as a teacher’s assistant for her acting classes. The duo did a lot of great work together to not only acquaint students with the performing arts, but also in encouraging them in their own artistic pursuits. When it was time for a schoolwide talent show, Tincher spearheaded the production as director with Kwami right at her side.

“Danielle had an extremely calm demeanor and she smiled a lot,” says Tincher. “Her calm nature always helped me feel less overwhelmed and anxious about directing. I’m sure she helped our students in that same way.”

Kwami’s passing was an unexpected and grave loss to those she knew, but also to the entire theatre community. She will be greatly missed.

For those who didn’t get the chance to hear her voice live, Kwami wrote and recorded an original song entitled, “I Love,” click here to listen to her astonishing voice and talent.


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo. 

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