Making The Haumana

‘Haumana’ is a student of hula, and while Keo Woolford starred in London’s The King and I and shared the stage with Christina Aguilera, at heart he remains a hula devotee and student. Thus the title of his loosely autobiographical film The Haumana that is changing attitudes about the ancient and sacred dance of Hawaii


Image 1 of 6

Keo Woolford. Photo by Nathalie Walker

Keo Woolford. If you don’t already know it, remember that name.

He’s a local boy who has been making a name for himself on the national and international circuits. His 2013 film The Haumana, which has made waves in major cities across the United States and is breaking out internationally, as well, is about to be released on DVD. And the film’s soundtrack just raked in a Na Hoku award last month for Compilation Album of the Year.

A fortuitous blend of serendipity and hard work have defined the multitalented performing artist, who leapt from a cushy gig as a pop star here in Hawaii right into the spotlight of London Palladium, that hallowed theatrical venue where most artists only dream of taking the stage.

Adopted by a Pearl City family who would have liked to give him a Hawaiian name, but weren’t familiar enough with the language, he was named Joseph. It was the young man’s kumu hula, Robert Cazimero, who christened him Keomailani, meaning, “The calling or the answer from above,” a title that seems to describe key moments of his life. Hula, in particular, to which he was first introduced by happenstance at Saint Louis High School, serves as his ongoing inspiration.

“I was a jock in high school,” he notes. “I played football and baseball and paddled, but initially I went and took hula classes because I thought it was going to be easy … That was totally not the case.”

Hula, it turned out, is not just a class, but a lifestyle that teaches discipline and values.

At the time, Woolford had other aspirations, like being a pop star. After graduating in ’85 and doing some commercial and print modeling in Los Angeles, his dream became a reality in the late ’90s with the advent of Brownskin, a five-member boy band sporting sequined jackets and slick dance moves.

“I remember getting on stage and there were 12,000 people in Stan Sheriff Center. The concert was completely sold out,” recalls Woolford. “The screams were so loud, we couldn’t even hear ourselves on stage. At one point, all the glow sticks were going back and forth, and I was, like, oh my gosh, this is so addicting.”

Brownskin gained the distinction of co-headlining with Christina Aguilera, and the band contributed to Island Warriors, a Grammy-nominated CD. Nevertheless, in the midst of his pop stardom, Woolford was selected to replace fellow local boy Jason Scott Lee in The King and I in London in 2000, performing a dizzying eight times a week for a 15-month run.

The stage took hold of Woolford, and over the next 10 years he would live in New York and Los Angeles, where he honed his acting skills. During that time, his passion for hula thrived. He had joined Cazimero’s respected halau, Na Kamalei, in ’99, and despite Woolford’s globe-hopping, the renowned kumu continued to mentor him.

In New York, Woolford was commissioned for a one-man show, I Land, the initial inspiration for his feature film, The Haumana.

“After doing The King and I at London Palladium, with my name above the title, I was like, now what? What a way to start off!” says Woolford. “And then I Land came out and it premiered off-Broadway, and then traveled around the country and into the Philippines for about three years. And then it was like, now what?”

Wondering how to top such exceptional opportunities, Woolford looked for his next big venture in L.A., appearing on TV and in films. The roles coming his way, however, were less than inspiring. His response? He wrote his own screenplay. As with I Land, it was about a male hula dancer.

Taking an autobiographical approach, he loosely based characters and situations depicted in both I Land and subsequently The Haumana on experiences within his hula family. Having once danced in a show in Waikiki, Woolford wrote himself into the film script as lead character, Jonny Kealoha, who has thrown his connection with his cultural roots by the wayside in favor of hosting a show that caters to tourists. With an entirely local production on his hands, shot only here in Hawaii using a fully local cast, Woolford quickly realized that his capacities were being stretched thin and that his energy would be best suited as director.

His message would be personal and far-reaching. For those of us who live in Hawaii, hula is a ubiquitous cultural art, but for those less familiar, hula still is viewed stereotypically.

“A lot of people don’t realize men dance hula,” points out Woolford. “There’s this connotation in almost any dance form that it’s a sissy thing to do, especially hula. I made the movie to expose a little bit about our culture from my perspective as a haumana (student of hula), not any sort of expert.

“I am a proud hula dancer, and I had a little chip on my shoulder when I was living away, and people were, like, ‘You’re going to hula class – where’s your hoop?’ I was, like, where’s my hoop? What are you talking about? These were intellectuals, worldly people, saying this with all seriousness.

“I’d love people to see The Haumana and the sense of pride we have about who we are and where we’re from. And also the shared sense of doing what you love in spite of what people think.”