Actor Moronai Kanekoa performing as the Hawaiian folk hero Kaluaikoʻolau

Re-making history

Text Will Caron

Since its debut on Kauaʻi at the Waimea Historic Theatre on March 1, 2014, Gary Kubota's one-man touring play, The Legend of Koʻolau, has traveled throughout Hawaiʻi and across the Pacific to theaters in Oakland, Sacramento and Los Angeles, California, and now back to the islands. The play is a fascinating theatrical rendition of the story of Kaluaikoʻolau, one of Hawaiʻi's most important folk heroes and the subject of poems and stories written by towering literary figures like W.S. Merwin and Jack London. But the story of Koʻolau—and the larger narrative of Hawaiʻi—has, for the most part, been told and re-told only from an outside perspective.

The standing ovations the play has received from each of its audiences are testament not only to the beauty and power of the performance, but also to the important work the play is engaged in: namely, providing an avenue for a Hawaiian voice to have its say in shaping its own narrative. In doing so, the play is a small, but important, contribution to generating resistance to the dominant colonial narrative that so often misrepresents and undermines both Hawaiʻi and its indigenous people.

The play, which will be performed next at the Doris Duke Theatre in Honolulu on November 20, 2016, focuses on a native Hawaiian family and the resolve of its patriarch to defend both the land that they love and their very way of life after Queen Liliʻuokalani is overthrown in 1893. But actually, this complex historical story has its roots almost 50 years earlier, with the Great Mahele of 1848. A journalist by trade, Kubota spent 40 years of off-and-on research finding out as much as he could about what happened to Hawaiians in the tumultuous second half of the 19th century.

“I reviewed the microfilm of the newspapers and magazines and also State Archive reports from that period,” he says, particularly of the period from 1892–94, which is when the action of the play occurs.

Kaluaikoʻolau is a legendary figure: a folk hero to many native Hawaiians; a Romanticized bandit and rebel leader to creative writers of history like Jack London; a threat to the provisional government that wanted his people's land for their own. He is also a loyal subject of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Koʻolau is living in the isolated Kalalau Valley on Kauaʻi's northwest coast when the queen is overthrown by white businessmen backed by United States marines. Shortly after, he and his son—both victims of Hansen's disease (known then as leprosy)—are threatened with forced relocation to Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula on the north coast of the island of Molokaʻi known then as “the living grave.” When Koʻolau refuses to go, the illegitimate “provisional government” sends in deputies, followed by a small platoon of militiamen equipped with a cannon, to force the two Hawaiians to relocate to the leper colony.

Koʻolau's resistance to what he deems an occupying force, and the provisional government's attempts to crack down on this resistance, become a symbol for Hawaiian patriotism. But the play is also about a man and the trials he must overcome. “It's a compelling story, and I like the idea and the challenge of writing about an ordinary working man confronted with having to make certain kinds of decisions, being pulled into this historical vortex of politics and using whatever skills and knowledge he has available to him to survive,” Kubota explains. “He didn't go looking for a fight. He went into the valley to die with his son, and these people came trying to impose their own standards and laws. Even then, he didn't organize a group to go kill them or anything like that. He simply stood his ground and fought for what he believed in.”

The use of the Internet—which was still more than 20 years away from public access when Kubota began his research in the '70s—sped up the process by giving him access to powerful resources.

“With the Internet I was able to quickly access land title search documents after the Great Mahele to see if there were any people named Koʻolau with land in that area of Kauaʻi,” explains Kubota. “There was one Koʻolau—who might have been the legendary Koʻolau's father—who had an ʻili of land registered to his name.”

The Great Mahele was King Kamehameha III's attempt to ensure that land remained in the hands of Hawaiians by asking them to stake a claim to it. One third of the land in the Kingdom was to be crown land, one third went to the chiefs and the last third was to be set aside for commoners. The concept of land ownership was a foreign one to Hawaiians, however, and many of them made no claim at all. This resulted, ultimately, in land going to foreigners and not to Hawaiians, who ended up greatly displaced and disconnected from that which they considered dearest. This is the backdrop onto which the play is constructed.

Once Kubota felt he knew the history of the period and had thoroughly researched the events that led up to Koʻolau's stand in Kalalau Valley, the next step was to conceive of a method of storytelling. Originally, Kubota says he was planning to write a film script about Koʻolau.

“I decided I would begin by getting Koʻolau's point of view down and so I began to just write down what his thoughts would be,” he says. “Then I stepped back from it, after writing 30–40 pages, and I realized I had a one-man play.”

Adapting the story for the stage presented its own challenges. “What we're dealing with is a play—a western form—portraying a native Hawaiian story,” Kubota postulates. “The traditional form of Hawaiian storytelling would be through music or hula. Although I think the one-man play is actually very effective at getting the point of view of Ko’olau across, it's something I had to keep in mind.”

So Kubota had all kinds of people—including cultural experts, Hawaiian speakers, playwrights, producers and ordinary folks—vet the story in different ways.

“It was a dynamic kind of thing. It was quite a bit collaborative, although I'll take all the blame if it comes down to it,” he laughs.

During readings all over the state, in which Kubota showcased the play to ordinary people to get their feedback and reactions, Kubota says he learned just how important accuracy was to the people whose history is being told through his play.

“One lady said, 'You know, when you go to a Hawaiian heiau, you not supposed to wrap a stone in the ti leaves. You supposed to put a fruit inside as an offering.' And I said, “Oh. OK,” laughs Kubota.

Kubota tells another story in which he and Moronai Kanekoa—the actor who portrays Koʻolau in the play—were at the small town of Waimea on Kauaʻi, just a few miles from the house in Manā where Koʻolau lived with his family. During the reading, Kanekoa was pronouncing the town incorrectly and, afterwards, an older Hawaiian man from the area corrected him on the pronunciation. As they were leaving town, Kanekoa relayed the man's correction to Kubota.

“I said, 'Oh yeah, I knew that. I just forgot to tell you,'” laughs Kubota.

Kanekoa, a Kahalui, Maui native, brings a lot to the play, says Kubota. “He looks at the Hawaiian and he can speak it, just like that. He has an appreciation for—he realizes what it is that he's doing. It's a very significant role and it carries a lot of responsibility. There have been so few chances to tell this story from this perspective.”

And he's smart. Kanekoa worked his way to through the Masters Program in Fine Arts at the University of Southern California. “He had the play memorized in three weeks,” says Kubota. “Which may not sound like much, until you remember that he's not memorizing just one part in a play—he is the play. The challenge in performing this play is to not only figure out how to have Koʻolau speak his mind, but also how to bring in the context of these events so that the play could be more historical.”

Which brings us back to the importance of history, as well as the way history is recorded. Kubota says that in the 1980s, President Reagan appointed a Native Hawaiian Study Commission which erroneously concluded that the U.S. had nothing to do with the overthrow, despite U.S. marines landing on Hawaiian soil and pointing artillery at ʻIolani Palace, a clear act of war. The commission’s majority report concluded it was solely the Hawaiʻi businessmen and their militia who deposed the queen.

Kubota also talks about the 1972 summer occupation at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, which he participated in, that forced the University to save the ethnic studies program, which had been threatened with the ax.

Both are examples of how a native Hawaiian historical voice can be ignored and suppressed, or can be considered unimportant; not worthy of attention or study. Kubota hopes his play can continue the process of finding, securing and sharing that native voice for the benefit of suppressed voices everywhere.

“One thing that people will see is a native Hawaiian in a lead role, acting as a Hawaiian,” he says. “And that, in and of itself, is really important because suddenly native Hawaiians are not relegated to the stereotypical sidekick or villain that non-white characters often are portrayed as. Suddenly they are the heroes, and of their own story.

“In this particular instance you see that Koʻolau is a working man, but he's intelligent and capable of complex thoughts and emotion; he's compassionate; and he's smart in the ways of being Hawaiian—he knows the land, how to read the weather,” continues Kubota. “My hope is that it will encourage others to write more and continue to advance storytelling from this perspective.”

In doing so, the process of reclaiming Hawaiian history from disruptive, foreign and colonial influences will continue into the future and, hopefully, begin to heal some of the trauma that has, up to this point, been endured largely in silence.

Buy tickets to the November 20 performance here


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