LIHUE — When Kauai Performing Arts Center’s “Legally Blonde: The Musical” Director Dennis McGraw chose to put Nialani Green as the leading lady, he didn’t think twice.
“I cast the best person,” McGraw said. “I don’t care if she was green, purple, or polka dotted. The girl was the best choice. She’s the best person. She is well-prepared. I couldn’t have asked for a better pupil.”
Last week, KPAC began showing its version of the Broadway musical at Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall.
“Legally Blonde: The Musical” is about a sorority president, Elle Woods, who gets dumped and decides to win back her boyfriend by following him to Harvard Law. In the 2001 film, the leading actress was played by actress Reese Witherspoon.
McGraw said choosing his leading lady wasn’t about picking a girl based on the color of her skin.
Green, who plays Woods in the KPAC musical, is bi-racial; her father is black and her mother is Filipino, McGraw said.
Renae Hamilton, director of YWCA of Kauai, applauds McGraw’s casting decision.
“I think that is a wonderful example of how a community can break down those stereotypes,” she said. “That little thing right there, it’s pretty awesome.”
Hamilton said the YWCA of Kauai wants to start a conversation with the community about racism and its impacts on Kauai.
“Racism is here,” Hamilton said. “It may not be exactly like it is on the Mainland, but it is here.”
The organization is hosting an event tonight at the Women’s Center from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. to get a discussion going on whether community members have been negatively impacted by racism in the community.
“We are trying to get a little pulse,” Hamilton said. “Is anyone truly addressing racism? Schools? Churches? The local government?”
The campaign, which is called Stand Against Racism, is themed “On a mission for Girls of Color” and aims to highlight the struggles that young black girls face with the racial disparities in the educational system and possibility later in the judicial system.
According to figures from the Department of Education for Civil Rights, black girls are suspended at 12 percent more than girls of any other race or ethnicity, and at 6 percent more than White boys and 2 percent more than white girls.
“The numbers tell the story,” Hamilton said. “We’re highlighting why eliminating racism is still so important today and so relevant to today. And we’re especially putting a specific focus on young girls of color. It affects them at an early age. Not going to college. How can we start addressing this?”
Hamilton said Kauai is a bit different because it’s a “melting pot” of cultures and ethnicities.
Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar, who oftentimes works with the YWCA of Kauai, said he applauds the organization’s leadership in opening up a dialogue about race relationships on Kauai.
“The numbers clearly show that the criminal justice system has disproportionate impacts on communities of color and indigenous people,” he said. “Changing that will take the sustained collaboration of every facet of that system.”
“We have a very unique mix of cultures on Kauai that’s not really replicated elsewhere in the nation,” said local attorney Emiko Meyers, who also serves as YWCA board president. “It’s been a challenge bringing the issue to the community. We are to some extent reinventing the wheel.”
According to figures from the United States Census Bureau, Kauai is comprised of a diversity of races.
Asians made about the 31.3 percent of Kauai’s population in 2014, with the majority being 18 percent Filipino and 9.3 percent being Japanese. Hispanics or Latinos made up about 10.8 percent of the island’s population and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders made up about 9.1 percent.
Blacks or African Americans represented about .7 percent of the total population of Kauai in 2014, according to statistics from the United States Census Bureau. Blacks or African Americans combined with one or more races made up 1.2 percent of Kauai’s population.
“On the Mainland it’s more about the White and black issues then addressing the issues of multiculturalism,” Meyers said. “We want to address issues of all sorts of racism.”
Today’s event, which features speaker Anyta Wilson, is aimed at starting a conversation that will unravel how the different layers of racism affect Kauai.
Some issues will deal with not only girls of color, but transplants versus locals and indigenous cultures and the variety of races on the island, Meyers said.
“It’s kind of the initial stages of the dialogue,” Meyers said. “This is the issue that we deal with. It looks different than how things look like on the Mainland. We haven’t figured out the vehicle to bring it into the community.”
Megan Aucoin, lead crisis counselor at the YWCA of Kauai added: “I think that many people in our community – in the work place or in the educational or in the judicial system – have experienced racism in some capacities, maybe not directly, but in some way.”
Part of Aucion’s job at the YWCA is to explore ways to eliminate racism.
“We never judge a person,” she said. “We don’t discriminate a person’s skin color. We always treat a person as a person. We don’t pass judgment on anything appearance wise or culture wise.”
McGraw said that although no one has made a comment about his casting decision or some of the racy dialogue in his musical, he believes that racism still exists.
“We’ve made great strides,” McGraw said. “But until we can look at a person and say that person is just a person and not a black person, or that person is a person and not a Hispanic person, then we still have a way to go.”
“I’m 60 years old and it’s certainly not going to go away by the time I am gone. Centuries of ignorance are not going to go away in just a matter of years.”