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I Ola ka Mo‘olelo

Perpetuating Our Stories Through Hawaiian Medium Theatre

Welina me ke aloha from the Pae ‘Āina o Hawai‘i! That’s the traditional term for all of the islands that constitute the Hawaiian archipelago. I am honored to curate this series on Hawaiian theatre, helping illuminate the performance practices of Kānaka Maoli, the Indigenous people of Hawai‘i—often referred to as Native Hawaiian—in our homeland and beyond.

Since time immemorial Kānaka Maoli, like many Indigenous peoples around the world, performed storytelling infused with song, incantations, and dance. Many of our performance forms were linked to traditional rituals and ceremony. This ritual foundation of Hawaiian theatre parallels the genesis of Greek theatre, which originates from the festival of Dionysus; Japanese Nōh theatre based in Shinto religion; and Tahitian performance, which is connected to the ritual practices of the Arioi society.

Prior to the introduction of a writing system in the Pae ‘Āina o Hawai‘i, all knowledge was maintained through oral tradition. Therefore, orators were and continue to be highly regarded in our culture for they are the poets, historians, and genealogists of the community. Storytellers, chanters, hula masters, and genealogists are the keepers of knowledge who perpetuate our history and culture from the Eastern gate at Ha‘eha‘e, where the sun rises, all the way to the pleasant tap root foundation of Lehua, where the sun is snared at the end of the day. These individuals are celebrated for their ability to weave the past with the present, maintaining the continuum of knowledge for generations to come.

It is a privilege to carry this responsibility, which in traditional times was a role passed down through a family line. Grandchildren were hand selected by their elders to be trained in the skill and art of oratory practices. Mary Kawena Pukui, an esteemed hulu kupuna—the term used to honor our elders, who are compared to prized bird feathers that adorn our community with their knowledge, wisdom, and accomplishments—who was trained by her grandmother in traditional oratory, described the training as a strict and tedious process that demanded focus and commitment from a young age to learn stories, chants, and songs by rote.

Hawaiian performer in traditional costume

Lā‘ieikawai. Photo by Nick Masagatani.

Pīpī Holo Ka‘ao – Sprinkled, the Tale Runs/Continues

Pīpī Holo Ka‘ao is a phrase often said after a story is recited to encourage the future retelling of the story. Growing up in a rural community on the island of Kaua‘i, storytelling was a common pastime in my family. As I recall from my youth, our regular family gatherings always consisted of time devoted to sitting around a circle listening to the elders share family stories, folklore, and sacred stories about our island. Those moments were my favorite part of these gatherings and have imprinted the value of storytelling on me.

I come from a long line of orators. My father’s brother is the keeper of hunting stories, tracks, trails, and the names of the different families who have rights to hunt on those grounds. My mother’s twin sister is the keeper of genealogical knowledge for the family. My father is known to many as Mr. Aloha with the gift of gab, always making the crowd laugh and feel good about life with his jokes and stories. My mother was a hula dancer who learned to tell stories through choreography and song. To my children, their grandmother—my mother—is one of the most creative storytellers they know, and she continues to expand their imagination through the stories she recites.

Although the approach and oratory styles are very different, the recitation of story is something that has been passed down in my family. Storytelling is in my DNA and is likely the reason why I was drawn to playwriting. I see the playwright as an extension of the orator of times past, someone who serves the community of today through the retelling of old stories and the voicing of contemporary stories to record the modern era.

Hana keaka shares the stories of our ancestors and addresses political issues faced throughout the generations that continue to resonate today.

‘O Hawai‘i Ku‘u Kulāiwi – Hawai‘i Is My Homeland

For Kānaka Maoli, the choice to ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (speak Hawaiian) in our homeland is political because of the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the subsequent years of American military occupation, and the colonial ramifications of these acts. We position ourselves as the native people of our ‘āina (land), claiming our sovereignty through speaking our language, knowing that in order for our culture to survive we need it.

Holding steadfast to our culture and language, we bridge the continuum of knowledge to pass down the legacy of our ancestors to future generations. Kānaka Maoli have embraced the modern world, integrating the traditional ways of our ancestors to create new venues and means of expression. The practice of Hawaiian hana keaka (medium theatre) is a movement in itself empowering Kanaka Maoli identity while reclaiming our history and space. Hana keaka shares the stories of our ancestors and addresses political issues faced throughout the generations that continue to resonate today. The retelling of our stories is a means to reconnect to our roots both ethnic and cultural. We carry our ancestors on our shoulders as we navigate through the turbulent seas as cultural and language warriors braving the battlefield.

Ka Pō Le‘a o Halāli‘i – A Night of Entertainment

Research in the Hawaiian newspaper archives verifies that Kānaka Maoli embraced the art of theatre, integrating their indigenous genres of performance into a dramatic framework to create hana keaka. Traditional performance forms are the foundation upon which hana keaka was developed, giving birth to an indigenously Hawaiian theatre aesthetic. The public performance of hana keaka, created by and for Kānaka Maoli throughout the mid to late 1800s into the early 1900s, are substantiated in the newspaper archives.

In its current incarnation, hana keaka recounts traditional mythologies and historical events typically classified as mo‘olelo. The stories communicated in these hana keaka productions are drawn from oral tradition and Hawaiian literary texts often extracted from the repository of Hawaiian language newspapers published from 1834 through 1948. Hana keaka are based in traditional mo‘olelo, depicting ancestors and historical figures as characters in these productions.

Frequently those involved with the productions are genealogically connected to the characters portrayed. This familial connection creates a sense of responsibility and accountability on the part of the cast members, the artistic team, and the playwright to present accurate and authentic representations of the mo‘olelo adapted for the stage. The Hawaiian language dialogue in each hana keaka is supported by traditional performance forms interweaving dance, poetry, and incantations with dialogue. These performance forms are utilized as dramatic structural devices resulting in the indigenously Hawaiian theatre aesthetic of hana keaka.

group of Hawaiian performers singing onstage

Production of Lā‘ieikawai. Photo by Nick Masagatani.

Ka Hālau Hanakeaka

The Hawaiian language theatre troupe Ka Hālau Hanakeaka has led the way since 1995 for this modern form of Hawaiian medium theatre. Kaliko Baker and myself co-founded this hālau (a place of learning, school, and also a traditional longhouse for gatherings and performance) with our peers while we were Hawaiian language students at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Our work has contributed to the Hawaiian language revitalization movement through performances for immersion school children and the development of curriculum surrounding those performances.

Since its inception, Ka Hālau Hanakeaka has committed to touring our productions to schools across the Hawaiian archipelago, creating access for rural Hawaiian communities to experience Hawaiian medium theatre. The hālau was officially established in January 1996 shortly after the premiere of our first production, Kaluaiko‘olau: Ke Kā‘e‘a‘e‘a o nā Pali Kalalau, in December 1995. Ka Hālau Hanakeaka has produced more than a dozen Hawaiian medium productions, some as curriculum in both the Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language in Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge and in the Hawaiian Theatre Program in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Besides providing an opportunity for our community to be entertained in the medium of Hawaiian language, Ka Hālau Hanakeaka holds steadfast to the values of education, intergenerational knowledge transmission, ancestral knowledge, cultural practices, and the socialization of our people. The value of hana keaka is in the retelling of our stories, which presents traditional knowledge, practices, beliefs, and lessons to a new generation of Kānaka Maoli. This confirms four things: we have our own stories; those stories are connected to our ancestors, be it human, land, or deities; our language is alive and is a viable means of communication; and there is value in celebrating our culture. Each hana keaka production has been a means to honor kūpuna, to perpetuate ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i raising the level of language fluency in our community, and to empower Kanaka Maoli identity.

This familial connection creates a sense of responsibility and accountability on the part of the cast members, the artistic team, and the playwright to present accurate and authentic representations of the mo‘olelo adapted for the stage.

‘O ke Kahua ma mua, ma hope ke Kūkulu – First the Foundation, Then the Building

The most recent achievement in the advancement of the teaching and practice of hana keaka has been the institutionalization of the medium at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. In fall 2014, the Department of Theatre and Dance established the Hawaiian theatre program inclusive of a graduate degree, a master of fine arts in Hawaiian theatre. To my knowledge this degree program is the only Indigenous graduate degree of its kind in the world.

Program course work includes the history of theatre in Hawai‘i, the study and analysis of Indigenous Hawaiian theatre, and training in both traditional and contemporary Hawaiian performance forms. Students enrolled learn the art form of hana keaka and participate in original Hawaiian medium productions on the Kennedy Theatre mainstage that reflect and honor the language, traditions, history, and values of Kānaka Maoli. Furthermore, the program ensures the regular staging of hana keaka productions for the Hawai‘i community.

Two full-length hana keaka have been produced since the establishment of the program: Lā‘ieikawai (2015) and Nā Kau a Hi‘iaka (2017). The inaugural production, Lā‘ieikawai, played to sold-out audiences and toured command performances on the neighbor islands of Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i, and Moloka‘i. Lā‘ieikawai also toured to Aotearoa/New Zealand and was a featured showcase production at the 2016 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Reviews in the local newspapers commended the production, calling it “A cultural and linguistic triumph.”

Nā Kau a Hi‘iaka, written and directed by Kau‘i Kaina, the first graduate of the MFA program in 2017, was the first Hawaiian theatre MFA thesis production of our new program. Both Lā‘ieikawai and Nā Kau a Hi‘iaka presented traditional mo‘olelo with themes highly relevant to today’s world, evoking strong emotions from audience members. Most recently, the Hawaiian theatre program collaborated with Todd Farley for his MFA thesis production of Moʻolelo o ke Koa, a Hawaiian-language adaptation of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (Soldier’s Tale). The production featured a live orchestra, European mime, physical theatre, as well as Hawaiian and European dance forms to tell the story of Koa, a Hawaiian warrior returned home from war, and his struggle with the lure of colonialism and the seduction of materialism that came with it.

The next hana keaka on the Kennedy Theatre mainstage will open in September 2019. Students are currently enrolled in a Hawaiian acting workshop course designed to train them in vocal and movement techniques that are utilized in traditional Hawaiian performance forms: hula (dance), oli (chant), mele (song), and hula ki‘i (puppetry). Students are also introduced to ha‘i ‘ōlelo (recitation) and ha‘i mo‘olelo (storytelling), and learn to perform hana keaka (Hawaiian acting technique). The original production is set in contemporary times infusing our modern struggles with our traditional histories.

Ha‘ina ‘ia Mai Ana ka Puana – And So the Refrain of My Song is Told

The mole (ancestral root/foundation) of hana keaka are the traditional performance forms that have existed since time immemorial. Therefore, hana keaka is an innately Kanaka Maoli expression of art that serves our community. As a playwright and director, I have had the privilege to carry this responsibility, serving as a vessel for the perpetuation of our stories, the promotion of our language, and the empowerment of our identity.

In our culture we are often guided to our work by our kūpuna. The storytelling that was instilled in me throughout my formative years prepared me for the work I do today in creating Hawaiian medium theatre. Hana keaka provides a venue for Kānaka Maoli to articulate their voice, recount historical events, and promote Hawaiian epistemology, ontology, cultural values, and practices. Performing our stories in our language is a revolutionary act that reclaims history, empowers Kanaka Maoli identity, elevates our people, and awakens Kanaka Maoli consciousness for generations to come. E ola mau ka mo‘olelo Hawai‘i—our stories/history shall live on!

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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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