Hana Keaka: Theatre’s Native Roots


Tammy Haili‘opua Baker

What’s more surprising? That UH Kennedy Theatre is about to put on shows entirely in the Hawaiian language or that purely Native Hawaiian theatrical productions haven’t had much of a presence in the Islands until this very moment?

“It’s all about timing,” says theatre professor Tammy Haili‘opua Baker. “Over the past few years, the university has made an effort to include Hawaiian and indigenous ways of knowing, practices, science, art forms and more.”

A perfect storm couples the university’s recently implemented scholarly focus on Hawaiian culture with Baker’s extensive expertise in hana keaka, or Hawaiian-medium theatre, to ready Kennedy Theatre and the community in general for UH Department of Theatre and Dance’s inaugural Hawaiian show, La‘ieikawai. Twenty years ago, Baker founded a Hawaiian-medium theatre troupe, Ka Halau Hanakeaka, with her husband, Kaliko, and the troupe has been performing original plays for the Hawaiian-speaking community since, even touring internationally. Baker also has written and produced plays in English and Pidgin for local theaters.

“Although La‘ieikawai is Kennedy Theatre’s first Hawaiian Mainstage production as far as content and language, Ka Halau Hanakeaka has worked toward building an audience for this kind of performance,” says Baker, the show’s playwright and director.

The theatre department plans to include a Mainstage Hawaiian production in its season every three years. Meanwhile, the new Hawaiian Theatre Program offers courses geared toward propagating Hawaiian theatre traditions.

“Our goal is multifold,” says Baker,. “To raise consciousness of Hawaiian language, history and culture, to build a community of theatre artists who do hana keaka, to celebrate all of the knowledge that our kupuna left behind for us as guidance for our future and to empower Hawaiian identity by performing our stories in our language.”

The program also has begun offering an MFA degree in Hawaiian theatre, and has already welcomed its first student, Kau‘i Kaina, who plays the title character in the upcoming production. La‘ieikawai incorporates mele, hula, oli and hula ki‘i, or traditional song, dance, chant and puppetry. The mo‘olelo, or story, centers around La‘ie’s beautiful La‘ieikawai, who lives in isolation, while men from across the land, Kaua‘i chief ‘Aiwohikupua (Ioane Goodhue) among them, come to seek her hand.

La‘ieikawai (Kau‘i Kaina) is accompanied by her sisters and grandmother Waka (Kameha‘ililani Waiau) in Kennedy Theatre's first Hawaiian-language production PHOTO BY CHESLEY CANNON

La‘ieikawai (Kau‘i Kaina) is accompanied by her sisters and grandmother Waka (Kameha‘ililani Waiau) in Kennedy Theatre’s first Hawaiian-language production PHOTO BY CHESLEY CANNON

Collaborating on the production are additional kumu, including kumu hula Snowbird Puananiopaoakalani Bento, who is contributing original mele compositions and choreography. Kumu hula R. Keawe Lopes Jr., an instructor at UH’s Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language whose courses include the study and practice of mele, brings original chant and hula compositions to the production. His halau Ka La‘onohi mai o Hae‘ha‘e, along with Bento’s Ka Pa Hula o Ka Lei Lehua will appear in a hula segment of La‘ieikawai.

The intended audience is Hawaiian language speakers and learners, Hawaiian immersion students and their families, and anyone interested in Hawaiian culture or who practices hula and other traditional performance art forms.

“The emotion and body language of the performers will illustrate their dialogue, chant, song and dance,” says director Baker, pointing out that even non-Hawaiian language speakers can benefit from the show, which makes available a detailed, scene-by-scene guide.

Community theaters occasionally struggle to cast their shows, but Baker said that with La‘ieikawai, they had a hard time narrowing down the 60 or so talented performers who auditioned for a cast of 40. Most of the actors are UH students, and the majority have a degree of fluency in ‘olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian language). Kaliko Baker, a Kawaihuelani Center instructor, is the production’s language coach and dramatics consultant.

“The Hawaiian Theatre Program is really about community building ― reaching out to our community and bringing them into this space so that we have a voice here on the stage,” says the director.

With that in mind, the schedule includes pre-show discussions Feb. 21 and 28. The production also includes school performances for Hawaiian immersion and focus charter school students.

the TICKET stub
When: Feb. 20 to March 1
Where: Kennedy Theatre
Cost: $25 general (discounts for seniors, military, UH staff, students)
More Info: 956-7655, hawaii.edu/kennedy