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Striving for the Summit

The Mountain Hawaiian Theatre Artists Must Climb

“Our history is moʻolelo, the stories of gods, ancestors, and the lessons we learn from them. To Hawaiians, folklore is not fiction. It is our genealogy.”—Kumu Hula Kimo Keaulana

Hawaiian Theatre, known as hana keaka, is making its presence known throughout the islands of Hawaiʻi. By combining a Western theatre structure (stage, lighting, props, script, acts, etc.) and Hawaiian history (folklore, newspapers, biographies, songs, chants, genealogies, etc.), a new indigenous theatre form has been born and is now being reared by Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) artists in every part of the island chain, ranging from elementary students at Hawaiian language immersion schools to graduate students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

What’s the common factor driving these adaptations of Hawaiian stories onto stage? Education. Hana keaka not only serves as an opportunity for indigeneity to be celebrated on stage—its main purpose is to include and educate all of Hawaiʻi’s people in demonstrating the value of revitalizing Hawaiian language and culture. It is one movement of many to re-normalize and re-institutionalize Hawaiian language throughout the state of Hawaiʻi, and a tool to immerse oneself in the Hawaiian language, to hear and experience popular stories from an indigenous perspective.

Hana keaka not only serves as an opportunity for indigeneity to be celebrated on stage—its main purpose is to include and educate all of Hawaiʻi’s people in demonstrating the value of revitalizing Hawaiian language and culture.

What is hana keaka (Hawaiian theatre)?

According to Hailiʻōpua Baker, founder of the Hawaiian Theatre program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, hana keaka is defined broadly as “...dramatic works that utilize the Hawaiian language to propel the story forward.” Baker also points out that there are four integral components that differentiate hana keaka from western theatre forms that make it uniquely Hawaiian:

  • Moʻolelo: bases plot with a dramatic story, epic, or historical event related to Native Hawaiians
  • Moʻokūʻauhau: integrates and interweaves genealogy and ancestral knowledge
  • Hana Noʻeau: demonstrates mastery of fine arts, such as hula (dance), mele (song), oli (chant)
  • ʻŌlelo Hawai‘i: uses native mother tongue as dialogue or narration
An actor in Hawaiin costume offers another actor a piece of fabric

Hāʻupu. Kamehameha Schools.

Problems with Calling it “Hawaiian” Theatre

From a translation standpoint, hana means “to make, produce, create or perform” and keaka is a transliteration for theatre. Thus, the words put together mean “to create or perform theatre.” The fact that these are Hawaiian words creates a context that this type of theatre may be related to Hawaiian language or Hawaiian stories, but for non-speakers of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), the English translation can create a less than clear understanding of what hana keaka is and how it specifically relates to Hawaiian people and their stories. Moreover, the term “Hawaiian theatre” may also lead to an amorphous understanding of the theatre form, as the term “Hawaiian” can mean different things to a person, depending on his or her relationship to Hawaiʻi. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Hawaiian is “a native or inhabitant of Hawaii,” “the Austronesian language of Hawaii,” or “relating to Hawaii, its people, or their language.” The first definition highlights a major issue in Hawaiʻi today: is one Hawaiian if he or she simply lives in Hawaiʻi? The third definition furthers this issue by pointing to the people and language of Hawai’i, but not delineating which people or which language, as Hawai’i has become a melting pot of peoples and cultures. This issue affects the term Hawaiian theatre, in such that the name does not specifically distinguish between Hawaiian language-medium theatre (theatre that uses Hawaiian language) and theatre about Hawaiʻi (theatre that includes the languages and stories of all inhabitants, not just those of natives). The second definition is the closest to what Baker defines as Hawaiian theatre, in that Hawaiian language-medium theatre consists of stories that use ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi to tell stories.

ʻĪmaikalani Kalāhele, a Kanaka Maoli artist, poet, and musician, once said, “I am Hawaiian. I create art. Therefore, I create Hawaiian art.” I wonder if this can be said of Hawaiian theatre artists? Is racial identity a passive or active factor in shaping a Native artist and his or her works?

One actor plays the violin while another leans over his shoulder

Moʻolelo o ke Koa. Photo by Todd Farley.

Raising the Child Called Hana Keaka

From the founding of Ka Hālau Hanakeaka in 1995 to the inaugural 2015 Hawaiian language mainstage production of Lāʻieikawai and the first master’s thesis production Nā Kau a Hiʻiaka in 2017, hana keaka today is just emerging from its infancy phase. Thus, like a child learning to crawl, speak, and walk, hana keaka as a theatre genre has the potential to grow and take on many forms through its formative years. As the number of Kanaka Maoli artists increases in joining the movement to adapt Hawaiian stories to stage, film, and television, so too does the number of “parents” rearing hana keaka to its adulthood. Raising the child called hana keaka takes a village, and the collective effort of artists adding their own perspectives and instilling life lessons into the child may elicit a well-rounded progeny. However, this co-parenting method begs the question, “Are there too many cooks in the kitchen?”

Like a lūauʻi makuahine (biological mother), the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa holds an intimate relationship with hana keaka through the birthing of Ka Hālau Hanakeaka, the Hawaiian theatre program, and the nurturing of academic merit. It is currently the only program that offers classes, research, and creative opportunities for artists and scholars to study and analyze the genre while also practicing and producing new works. Thus, the University serves as a major resource in defining and structuring the genre of hana keaka and becomes a model for artists to reference and follow in creating subsequent new works. This can be a slippery slope for new Native artists who want to help develop and define hana keaka, as those who do not have the “academic qualifications” to enroll in a graduate program or those who cannot afford university tuition are barred from critical research opportunities.

However, from a Hawaiian perspective, each adult of a village was regarded as makua (parent), regardless of biological ties. Thus, other schools and artists outside of the University, through their own creative works, also share a role in caring for and shaping hana keaka. Secondary schools like Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki Lab Public Charter School and Kamehameha Schools Hawai‘i Keaʻau Campus are creating hana keaka through their own frames of understanding, not specifically contingent to the University’s definition of hana keaka. Kamehameha Keaʻau’s form of hana keaka is Hawaiian language opera. These operas include ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, hula, mele, moʻokūʻauhau, and may ultimately satisfy the requirement of Baker’s four components of hana keaka, but the young artists face an entirely new layer of challenges: the mastery of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi within the composition of new songs, the acting and musicality of the young artists in said new songs, and the creation of a subgenre of hana keaka that is uncharted in research and the Hawaiian epistime.

The promotional image for a production of Battle of Kuamoʻo

Battle of Kuamoʻo. Kamehameha Schools.

As more hana keaka works are produced from these independent creative sources carving separate definitions as to what hana keaka is, the division of hana keaka into subgenres is quickly materializing. Hana keaka, in turn, like a large river gushing from the steep mountains, is now diverting into smaller streams that nourish specific audiences across the ʻāina (land). The important thing to note is that following each of these streams upland will always lead back to the original source that each stream shares: the knowledge and stories of our kūpuna (ancestors). Therefore, in these next few formative years as more hana keaka are created, there may be a need to create a coalition of artists from each of the creative schools, or streams of this storied and genealogical water, to discuss hana keaka and clearly define the intended outcomes of creating said work.

Types of Hana Keaka

Currently, I see three main branches of hana keaka and their respective sub-branches:

chart of genres of hawaiian theatre


  • Hana Keaka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi: dramatic performances in which Hawaiian language is used as dialogue/communication
    • Moʻolelo Kahiko: depicts Hawaiian history or stories of the past through Hawaiian language (Stories set before the ʻHawaiian Renaissance’)
      • Example: Kaluaiko‘olau (1995), Māuiakamalo (1998), Kamapua‘a (2004), Lāʻieikawai (2015), Nā Kau a Hiʻiaka (2017), Hāʻupu (2016)
    • Moʻolelo ʻĀnō: depicts contemporary stories of present-day Hawaiians through Hawaiian language (Stories set after the ‘Hawaiian Renaissance’)
      • Example: Currently, there is little to no theatre works solely produced in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. However, contemporary ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi short films include: Nani ke Kalo (2012), Mo‘olelo Mai (2017)
  • Hana Keaka Pili Iā Hawaiʻi: dramatic performances in which stories are related to Hawaiian language, culture, and/or history, but English is used as dialogue/communication
    • Moʻolelo Pili ʻĀina: depicts stories of Hawaiʻi, Hawaiians, and their history through English language
      • Example: Kaʻiulani (2009), The Descendants (2011),
    • Moʻolelo Pili Koko: Hawaiian actors playing ethnically-ambiguous characters in a story not related to Hawaiʻi or Hawaiian identity
      • Example: Aquaman (2018), Moana (2016)
  • Hana Keaka Hula: dramatic performances, usually of epic structure, in which movement is used as vehicle to propel story forward, rather than dialogue.
    • Hula Kiʻi: uses Hawaiian puppetry to depict a story
      • Example: Iwakalua (2017)
    • Hula Moʻolelo: uses hula to depict a story
      • Example: Holo Mai Pele (2001), The Natives are Restless (2016)
Actors in a fight scene

Hāʻupu. Kamehameha Schools.

Why Aren’t There Any New Stories?

In the list above, I haven’t provided any examples of dramatic theatre performances that use Hawaiian language to depict stories of present-day Hawaiians. There are several factors to consider as to why that is:

1. Looking to the past is our worldview

“ʻI ka wā ma mua, I ka wā ma hope.” This ʻōlelo noʻeau (wise saying) reminds Hawaiians to turn to the past and the look at the actions of our ancestors for answers to our problems today. Though a beautiful and powerful piece of advice, this also forces us as Hawaiians to turn our backs on the future, unable to see what is directly approaching.

This relates to Kanaka Maoli artists today, as the inclusion of our ancestors and their wisdom is crucially fundamental to the art of Hawaiian storytelling. Stories that do not interweave or reference genealogy and said ancestral wisdom violate an ingrained value of storied knowledge, thus, creating new characters or story outside of our history can easily become a breeding ground for criticism and rejection amongst Kanaka Maoli. In another case, the stories that our ancestors have written come from a time where the writers were mānaleo (first language-learners) and were masters of storytelling and weaving their understanding of environment and genealogy into these stories. Today, we lack that mastery of knowledge, and as a Kanaka Maoli, though I will not speak for others, I feel that it is safer (in terms of receiving criticism) to draw from the masters of the past rather than venture into uncharted waters of creating new stories.

2. The accessibility of Hawaiian language

ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi is a minority language in its own homeland. Once the language of commerce, governmental bans on the language within schools decimated the number of speakers within a short time span. Finding directors, producers, designers, playwrights, and actors who are speakers of the language is a needle in a haystack, but the Hawaiian Theatre program is changing this.

3. The believability of Hawaiian language

Watching a modern story where characters converse in the Hawaiian language challenges audiences to greatly suspend their disbelief, as most Hawaiian families are not native or fluent speakers. This can prove challenging to Kanaka Maoli playwrights who wish to write in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, but cannot identify a “believable” scenario in which the characters’ use of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi is appropriate and justified.

4. The story chooses the writer, not vice-versa

From a western viewpoint, one may simply pull a play from the western canon of dramatic literature and decide to produce it. For Kanaka Maoli artists, this is not the case, as our stories are living genealogies that directly tie us back to our ancestors and their universe, comprised of the gods, land, sea, and the greater celestial beyond. To choose and produce an ancestral story without any research or context would utterly rewrite our history and thousands of interconnected ancestral lines. As Hawaiians, we do not own the stories we inherit, rather, we protect and perpetuate the values and knowledge of our ancestors that were bestowed up on, and act as vessels to fulfill our duty for the betterment of our people. If a story wants to be told, it will present itself appropriately, and most times, unexpectedly.

As more Hawaiian theatre artists emerge, I am curious to see whether a canon for Hawaiian theatre will be created and/or needed. Would a canon remove the need for research/approval to produce these stories?

For Kanaka Maoli artists … our stories are living genealogies that directly tie us back to our ancestors and their universe, comprised of the gods, land, sea, and the greater celestial beyond.

The Dawning of a New Theatre Form

Our stories are the enduring backbone of our people; each vertebra a different generation of stories interlocked with one another, externalizing the triumphs of a people who mastered the seas, winds, earth, and stars and lived to tell the tale for generations to come. The fact that Hawaiians are still here today reiterates and reinforces the value of indigenous knowledge, and with the imminent rise of Hawaiian stories being adapted to stage for the world to see, hana keaka engenders an unlimited amount of potential for Kanaka Maoli artists to continue to protect and perpetuate our ancestors’ legacy through the limitless wonder of the stage. E ola mau ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. Long live the Hawaiian language.

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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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