Hannah Ii-Epstein hunches over when she talks, her voice soft and vaguely otherworldly, but her eyes are sharp and deep, and she looks you straight in the eye as she speaks, picking her words with a care that makes it clear she packs meaning in every syllable she emits. Her plays are the same way. Their stories unfold with a misleading informality, accentuated by the fact that most of Ii-Epstein's characters speak Hawaiian pidgin English, the creolized mix of English, Hawaiian, Cantonese, Japanese, and other Asian and Pacific Island languages that is spoken by everyday Hawaiians. But beneath the easy patois pulses an urgent intensity; in an instant, in her tales, hearts are broken, hope is destroyed or regained, lives are destroyed or redeemed. In her last play, Not One Batu, a former meth addict loses it all, including custody of her son, when she starts using again.
Ii-Epstein is just finishing up a trilogy of plays about drug use in her home state of Hawaii. Not One Batu premiered in 2018 in Chicago, produced by Nothing Without a Company, the theater company she runs with her wife, Anna Rose Ii-Epstein. The next installment, Pakalolo Sweet, about Hawaii's underground marijuana economy—"We call it the traditional market," Ii-Epstein jokes—opens this month. And Ii-Epstein is currently putting the finishing touches on the last of the three plays, Aloha Fry-days, "about hallucinogens," she explains, "that are easily accessible in Hawaii—LSD, peyote, mushrooms, and a flower that grows in Hawaii, angel trumpet flower."
Ii-Epstein knows of what she speaks. She spent her adolescence in the drug worlds she now chronicles. "I was addicted to meth," she recalls. "Meth because it was cheap and easy. But really I was addicted to snorting drugs—whether it was cocaine, meth, or Ritalin, anything I could put up my nose."
Growing up on the north shore of Oahu in a town called Waialua, the daughter of a Hawaiian mother and a Jewish father, Ii-Epstein started abusing drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with the trauma of being repeatedly sexually abused by an uncle. Eventually the uncle was prosecuted, after Ii-Epstein confided to her brother about what was happening and her family intervened. "We went to court when I was 17," she tells me. "Where he took a plea bargain. He still has yet to offer me an apology without any if/ands/buts."
But while the abuse was happening, the drugs were a way to mute the pain. "From when I was 12 years old to 17 years old, monthly using turned into weekly and eventually daily," Ii-Epstein tells me. "Again, this was all the drugs, any drug I could get my hands on. I started using meth when I was about 17."
Like the characters in her plays, Ii-Epstein's life then totally revolved around her drug and alcohol use. And this continued for years, through middle school, high school, and after. Finally, one day, at 19, Ii-Epstein looked around and saw how she and her friends were living. "We were living a homeless lifestyle," Ii-Epstein says, "jumping houses, staying with whoever's friend's parents were not there that weekend." She was also seriously tweaking, picking her skin until she was covered with scabs, which she then also picked, staying awake for days at a time.
"I realized that I wasn't OK," Ii-Epstein recalls. "That I wasn't physically OK and I was not mentally OK. So I went home."
"I spent the first week in bed with the sweats," Ii-Epstein continues, "having flulike symptoms getting clean. Like Honey Girl's story in Not One Batu, I couldn't eat without [smoking] pakalolo. I eventually could leave the bed and would walk to the beach and spend hours laying in the sand like a honu (sea turtle) and getting in the ocean to heal, to wash myself clean. But it took the patience, support, and unconditional love of my parents and my brother for me to even get clean and then to stay clean."
Even after getting clean, it took years for Ii-Epstein to find herself. She moved to Chicago when she turned 21. "An ex-girlfriend moved me here," she smiles. "All I was doing was surfing and working at a movie rental store, and she wanted to come here to school. I was like, why not, I am not doing anything. So I took the plunge without having visited before. The first winter was magical. I had never seen snow before. I had only seen it in movies. It was superfun for me."
Several years after moving to Chicago she met someone who would change her life, her now-wife, Anna Rose Ii-Epstein. "I met Anna [then Anna Epstein] at 3:30 in the morning walking home from a bar," Ii-Epstein reminisces. "We started talking and hit it off. Exchanged e-mails."
It was Anna who introduced her to the other members of a nascent theater ensemble she was part of (the company later named itself Nothing Without a Company), and it was through that company that she met playwright Ike Holter, who encouraged her to write plays because, as he told her, "We need more women and people of color writing plays." She and Holter cowrote Ii-Epstein's first two plays, Episodical 1.1: Triggered by Triangles and Episodical 1.2: Stunned by Stars.
Carson Becker, another playwright and Ii-Epstein's teacher at Columbia College Chicago, encouraged Ii-Epstein to begin writing in her native Hawaiian pidgin English. "I didn't know you could do that," Ii-Epstein laughs. "That's a thing? It blew my mind."
Her first attempt at writing a play in Hawaiian pidgin English resulted in Not One Batu, which in turn inspired her to write two more plays documenting a world she left long ago.
Today Ii-Epstein describes herself as "California sober": "That means I only use marijuana. I don't drink. I don't use any other types of drugs. I am addicted to sugar and caffeine, and I do smoke cigarettes—I hope to cut it off in a few years."
Still, Ii-Epstein is aware that keeping clean and sober is a lifelong pursuit. "There is not one day that goes by that I don't think about using," she says. "I wake up every morning and tell myself that I won't use today. I don't leave my house if I'm feeling less than 50 percent, because I know the first thing I'd do is get some drugs. I don't go to bars or parties if I'm feeling crappy in any way. I keep myself out of situations where I would ever consider using. I have to trust myself, and if I'm not having a good feeling, I walk away. Instead of drugs, I'll binge-watch really bad TV shows."
Or write really good theater. v