Hawaiʻi’s Theatre Landscape

Majestic and Rugged as its Terrain

There is a movement happening in the arts scene in Hawaiʻi: artists are indigenizing theatre spaces and breaking the idyllic paradise stereotype others hold of the area. Ancient deities are emerging as murals on city walls; kapa (ornate traditional bark cloths) decorate gallery and hotel ceilings; myths and legends are being retold as sci-fi, Disney’s Moana was translated in Hawaiian language, and contemporary Pacific stories of the Samoan diaspora and Micronesian migration, reflecting Hawaiʻi’s social landscape, are finally being made into theatrical dramas. But even with this cultural movement, Hawaiʻi’s theatre landscape continues to be underrepresented and marginalized.    

performers dancing

Dorothy Mane, Doris Tulifau, and Kiana Rivera in Frangipani Perfume, written by Makerita Urale, produced by The Leeward Theatre. Photo by Jonathan Reyn. 

To understand Hawaiʻi’s majestic and rugged theatre terrain, one must have a general understanding of its social landscape. Hawaiʻi is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse states in America due to its history and location. Prior to the arrival of settler colonialists, Hawaiʻi was home to the Indigenous people of the land, the Kānaka Maoli. American missionaries arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1820, where they settled, established churches and businesses, brought military forces in to protect their interests, and then, in 1893, overthrew the kingdom. 

Over this seventy-three-year period, sugar plantations owned by American businessmen brought over laborers from China, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Japan, Portugal, and Korea. This eventually created Hawaiʻi’s diverse “local” culture featuring a pidgin vernacular, known to linguists as Hawaiian Creole English, now an official language of the state. References to local theatre or local playwrights in this article reflect the diverse community of Kānaka Maoli, descendants from the plantation era, missionary settlers, and longtime permanent residents. The current social landscape features a transient military community, Micronesian refugees escaping nuclear testing and seeking medical treatment, foreign investors from Asia, and other settlers seeking Hawaiʻi’s gentrified lifestyle of business and pleasure. 

Theatre in Hawaiʻi is almost a perfect reflection of its social terrain. There are twenty state council theatres and most of them are made up of and for white settlers. A perfect example is seen at Diamond Head Theatre and Mānoa Valley Theatre. A typical season consists of major musicals like Ragtime, Evita, Billy Elliot, Chicago, South Pacific, and Broadway comedies and dramas like August Osage County, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harold and Maude. Also part of the council of theatres producing works of the Great White West are All the World’s a Stage, Hawaiʻi Shakespeare Festival, and TAG – The Actors’ Group

Racism no longer looks like torch-bearing hooded white men or bad local jokes attacking Micronesians. Racism can manifest as the predominantly white-run theatre companies all over Hawaiʻi.

Eighteen of the council theatres are located on the island of Oʻahu, which has the highest residential population in the island chain. Six have been known to produce locally written plays. Kumu Kahua Theatre, established in 1971 by a group of University of Hawaiʻi graduate students with the intent to produce locally written experimental works, stays true to its mission and has broadened its scope by recently producing plays written by Pacific Islander playwrights from Aotearoa (New Zealand). PlayBuilders of Hawa‘i produce community-collaborative plays facilitated by experienced theatre artists. Their work engages community members while exposing them to performative storytelling. Kumu Kahua Theatre and PlayBuilders are the only theatres whose sole mission is to produce locally written work.

Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Hawaiʻi’s only professional theatre company, is known for producing thought-provoking, innovative plays for young audiences, many of which are written by local playwrights. The Leeward Theatre and Palikū Theatre are part of the University of Hawaiʻi’s community college system. Although neither theatre’s mission is to produce locally written work, they both regularly commission plays by local writers and rent out space to local theatremakers. Hawaiʻi Mission Houses Museum produces plays based on early nineteenth-century Hawaiʻi, with an occasional Shakespeare production. 

Actor holding props

Gerald Ramsey in My Name Is Gary Cooper, written by Victor Rodger, produced by Kumu Kahua Theatre. Photo by Kumu Kahua Theatre.

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of Theatre and Dance is a mixed bag of richness and systemic racist practice. As a proud product of the institution, I’ll keep my observations honest. I didn’t realize how problematic inequities were until I left Hawaiʻi for two months of American immersion. Last fall on Turtle Island, I attended artEquity training in Bulbancha (New Orleans) and slowly, very uncomfortably—like watching the ugly truth undress itself layer by gaudy taffeta layer—I became exposed to the true power dynamics behind every facet of American life. 

After this experience, racism no longer looks like torch-bearing hooded white men or bad local jokes attacking Micronesians. Racism can manifest as the predominantly white-run theatre companies all over Hawaiʻi. One example is a large university’s recent production of a Shakespeare play with a Bollywood theme, which featured white leads and dancers of color in the background. Orientalism and other inequities were found in casting and in what appeared to be an exoticized narrative. In a time where there is a growing national movement to end yellowface, brownface, blackface, and disability portrayals, this production made the university’s truth, racial healing, and transformation initiative look like an effort for the sake of optics.  

With a growing LGBTQ population in Hawaiʻi since same-gender marriage became legal in 2013, the island theatre scene is beginning to see more theatre with queer themes. 

Hawai‘i has many majestically mysterious theatre companies—ones that are relatively unknown or that exist on the fringes; not the popular, mainstream ones. Apart from the pack of council-registered theatres, these companies produce not just original works, but works I will specifically call Indigenous theatre. Ka Hālau Hanakeaka, founded by Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker and C.M. Kaliko Baker, and ʻInamona Theatre Company, founded by Moses Goods, are companies committed to Hawaiian-based storytelling, with the former specializing in Hawaiian-language productions. Although Hawaiʻi audiences have more access to Indigenous theatre today, these Indigenous artists and their companies remain hidden gems to a majority of people. 

My identity as a theatre artist of Oceania, growing up amongst both majestic and rugged terrains, has made me aware of my responsibility to write for and about Pacific Islanders in the diaspora. It is an honor to be part of this movement of Indigenous artists creating space for Indigenous bodies and other people of color. In late 2017, my MFA thesis production, Faʻalavelave: The Interruption, became the first Samoan play to be produced by the University’s Kennedy Theatre. In 2016, my first play, Puzzy, debuted in Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and was produced at Kumu Kahua Theatre in Honolulu the following year. Puzzy was the first-ever play to feature a queer Pacific female narrative and was recently published in Samoan Queer Lives, an anthology of Samoan fa‘afafine (third-gender) stories. With a growing LGBTQ population in Hawaiʻi since same-gender marriage became legal in 2013, the island theatre scene is beginning to see more theatre with queer themes. 

Continuous efforts are being made by Hawaiʻi theatre artists to tell the stories of underrepresented communities. Although Hawaiʻi’s theatre scene is in great need of resources to push that effort forward, without a doubt there exists a strong sense of community and an eagerness to learn, grow, and experiment. Hawaiʻi’s theatre landscape is as complex as its history. It is a landscape that has supported me as a playwright and given me the courage to write as fearlessly as I do. Theatre artists of color in Hawai‘i have always learned from and pushed past the discomfort of our own conditioned inequities and histories. We produce creative works that advocate for social justice and culturally conscious art, representing the diverse voices that exist in the rugged and majestic Hawaiʻi terrain. 

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Thoughts from the curator

Kanaka Maoli theatre artists are grounded in our homeland, our language, and the stories, beliefs and ways of our ancestors. This series explores the fundamental elements of Hawaiian theatre while highlighting the elevation and expansion of hana keaka (Hawaiian-medium theatre) across our island chain.

The Foundation and Rise of Hawaiian Theatre

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