From the February 2015 performance of Lā‘ieikawai, the first Hawaiian Theatre production at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa | Courtesy Kennedy Theatre publicity

The king's Hawaiian

Text Donna Blanchard

King Kalākaua had an appreciation for both traditional Hawaiian performance as well as international theater. He attended productions around the world and wanted to combine the various forms of storytelling with which he had grown up with the kind of theater he had witnessed on the American continent and in Europe and Asia.

As Kalākaua did in the early 1800s, Kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker is bringing various forms of storytelling to a traditional stage setting in the Hawaiian language. And her efforts have led to something beyond anything Kalākaua might have dreamed: the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa now offers a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Hawaiian Theatre.

“Communication has great mana,” Baker says about the purpose of her work. “The experience lifts you and makes you a better person.”

Baker is a passionate and energetic woman who infuses nearly every word she says—in both English and Hawaiian—with such contagious joy that it’s no wonder her program is so popular.

When Baker’s Hawaiian Theatre Company, Ka Hālau Hanakeaka, performs at various venues around the island, they have no problem attracting an audience. In fact, they generally sell out in such venues as the Ke‘elikōlani Auditorium at Kamehameha School, which seats 750.

In 2012, Baker—who had been teaching in the Hawaiian Language Program at UH—was charged with creating a Hawaiian Theatre program.

Baker and her collaborators, Kumu Kaliko Baker and Kumu Keawe Lopes, had been developing the structure for the MFA program for years. Centered around a belief in the necessity of performance within the Hawaiian language, the program has solidified around a core mission:

“When a language is truly alive, it is not only taught and spoken, but also must be lived in,” Baker says. “When was the last time you heard someone make a joke in Latin? Exactly!”

It’s easy to understand that it is important to create, participate in and attend theater performed in Hawaiian, but why are there no subtitles, as there are for performances in French, Italian and German at Hawaii Opera Theatre?

“Hawaiian is a very complex language,” Baker explains. “Each word has multiple meanings … so we’re expressing so much more than subtitles can possibly deliver, and reading subtitles pulls your attention from the action of the stage. You miss so much if you’re reading. We do, however, provide programs that explain the story and characters. You don’t have to speak Hawaiian to enjoy them."

Baker’s students improvise, adapt and invent in the Hawaiian language. What’s more, the theater audience doesn’t just sit back and watch as with movies. The very nature of theater insists that audiences communicate with the performers. This allows us to experience and share our humanity alongside the actors.

In February, 2015, Baker directed UH’s first Hawaiian Theatre production, entitled Lā‘ieikawai. More than 40 actors and performers participated in the production, which incorporated the traditional Hawaiian performance forms of hula (dance), mele (song/Hawaiian poetry), oli (chant) and hula ki‘i (puppetry) to create hana keaka (drama).

More information about the Hawaiian Theatre program and productions can be found at


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