Hawaiian Heritage is Inspiration for Gay Comedy

  • This content is brought to you in partnership with Ronnie Larsen Presents and Plays of Wilton (POW!)

Native Hawaiian playwright Kalani Whitford reimagines the history of his South Pacific home in the world premiere of “Sea Men,” opening this week at the Foundry in Wilton Manors. Credit: Facebook.

“What if?” is a question playwright and director Kalani Whitford asks in his new play, “Sea Men,” receiving its world premiere Feb. 22 – March 31 at the Foundry in Wilton Manors.

Whitford, a native Hawaiian, started acting at the age of five and, just a year later, made his professional debut as Jerome, the half-Polynesian son of Emile de Becque in a dinner theater production of “South Pacific.”

“I got fired at 10 because of a growth spurt,” Whitford said with a chuckle in a telephone interview, “but that didn’t stop me!”

He later went on to study acting in California before returning to Maui in 2000. And for the last decade, Whitford, now 53, has been directing professionally on the island and serves as artistic consultant to Maui on Stage.

“It’s been up and down, of course, but I’m really grateful to be here realizing this dream,” Whitford explained.

He first got the idea for “Sea Men” about five years ago. He’s always been proud of his heritage and began researching the arrival of British explorer Captain James Cook, was among the first Europeans to traverse the South Pacific and “discovered” Hawaii. Whitford spent years reading books and watching documentaries.

“I was really intrigued when I discovered Cook’s wife, Elizabeth, survived him for 55 or 56 years and at the age of 93, she burned all of his letters,” Whitford recalled. “We don’t have anything from him and I wondered why she would do that. He was killed on Valentine’s Day 1779, but that’s really the last we know.”

The arrival of the British certainly upended the isolated island culture and Cook’s crew famously introduced devastating diseases, including the venereal kind, he noted. But what if there was more to the story? Maybe there was a reason Cook’s wife destroyed his accounts of adventure on the high seas.

“Sea Men” became a gay romantic comedy that upends conventional thinking. 

“What if he didn’t die there and instead discovered he was gay?” Whitford asked. “What if he fell in love with a young Hawaiian twink and decided to stay? I love farce and slapstick comedies, so I set out to write the silliest comedy with dick jokes and naked men. It became a fun campy musical.”

A friend introduced the writer to producer Ronnie Larsen, who, in partnership with the nonprofit Plays of Wilton, has made gay-themed comedies a staple at his Wilton Manors theater. Whitford began following Larsen on social media and made the trip to South Florida in 2022 to pitch his play. Two years later, “Sea Men” is finally receiving its debut.

“Everything going on in the world is just so serious,” Larsen said, “and audiences need an escape from all the bad news, inflation and presidential politics and wars. Kalani’s play takes us far away from all of that to an imaginary paradise.”

Theatergoers have responded to Whitford’s vision. Larsen noted that “Sea Men” has brought in the largest advance ticket sales in the history of the Foundry and the first three weeks are nearly sold out.

“I’m overwhelmed by the support of the community,” said Whitford. “Ronnie says there was a mystique behind the show and my Hawaiian name. But I think it’s really because the play is very different from Ronnie’s shows. It’s more of a period comedy…”

After a pause, he added, “And it’s still my secret hope that this is what really happened.”

Ronnie Larsen Presents and Plays of Wilton present the world premiere of “Sea Men” by Kalani Whitford, Feb. 22 – March 31 at the Foundry, 2306 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $37.50 at RonnieLarsen.com.

This content is brought to you in partnership with Ronnie Larsen Presents and Plays of Wilton (POW!).


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Corrections: editorial@outsfl.com

2520 N. Dixie Highway,
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