There’s an old State building on the corner of Merchant and Bethel Streets in downtown Honolulu. I walk past it all the time. I never really knew there was a functioning little theater in there! The building is just there and usually looks abandoned, like a lot of old State buildings. These buildings are not really abandoned but their age and lack of any visual activity around them gives the impression that they are.
There’s even a… a dispossessed person (that’s my kind word for the day) who spends a lot of time in the back corner between this theater-harboring, State building and the relatively-newer Bank of Hawaii parking structure.
Anyway, Kumu Kahua Theater is inside this quiet little building and has been having performances for quite some time. So, why did I choose this play? Well, once I found out about Kumu Kahua Theater, I’ve been wanting to go see some of the stuff that goes on there. I’m not sure how the subject came up but while talking to a fellow blogger who hangs her keyboard on the Leeward side of the island, she mentioned that she not only frequents the productions at Kumu Kahua Theater, but she was also familiar with this particular playwright’s work.
Great! I’ll get tickets to Ola Na Iwi (The Bones Live) so we can go too! It’s about what? Bones? Graveyards? Regular readers know how I love graveyards! So I get to finally meet an online friend and see a play about cemeteries! Perfect!
This is great! I’ve been trying to find a way to meet up with Skeet since… April or May, I think. Maybe longer. Then I get to see a play about Hawaiian graves and stuff! Uh, well, that’s not it exactly. Read on…
I was excited to finally meet Skeet and I was certainly not disappointed. On the contrary, while I expected her to be somewhat nonchalant about our meeting, I later told my mother that I couldn’t tell which one of us was the most excited! Skeet’s a more seasoned blogger than I am, and anyone who reads her stuff at Skeet’s Stuff gets a kick out of it! She blogged about our play adventure quickly afterwards. I have been slowed down for a few reasons, which I will tell you guys about later, I promise.
So, that part went well! Skeet is as bubbly and fun-loving as the “voice” in her blog. She’s vivacious and excited about the functions and opportunities that appeal to her internal scribe. Along with Skeet we got to meet her friend, nicknamed Dusty Flint, who shares many of Skeet’s passions. Dusty Flint (I’m guessing she quit smoking and that’s why her flint is dusty but I’m not sure) seemed as knee-deep in the passion of literary art forms as Skeet did.
Skeet and my mother hit it off quickly and Dusty Flint, to Mom’s delight, is an opera fan! We’re doing really well here. Skeet did a short write-up and put up a picture on her blog. Mine didn’t come out so well, but, I’ll include it anyway just to say I did.
We had so much to talk about, but at some point we had to stop talking to each other because the play was about to start! I have to admit, the play was confusing to me because there were so many parts that I kept trying to piece together — trying to link them the way you do when you read a novel. I kept trying to find the connection between the scenes. The reality was that they had nothing, yes I said nothing, to do with each other. The disassociated parts were inserts with a connection to the past that actually explained a lot of the “Why?” that was going on in the play.
Here’s an insert of my own. This familiar piece of art below is a lithograph of the 1824 painting by artist John Hayter, of Chief Boki, governor of Oahu, and his wife Liliha, who later succeeded him as governor of Oahu. This art work is owned by the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
In Ola Na Iwi, we are led to deduce that the spirit of Liliha lives in the bones that were illegally “rescued” from a museum in Germany by a young Hawaiian girl who, while visiting with a theater group, couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them behind when she returned home to Hawaii. So, while it wasn’t exactly cemetery stuff, we’ve got us a ghost! Liliha is part of the play! She’s smart too — she assumes a different name, Nanea, to manipulate the other characters into helping her achieve her goal — to come home where she belongs, and ultimately rest in peace.
Why were the bones so far away? How did they get there? Here’s where one of those disassociated scenes come in handy and explains, in a nutshell, that it was the anthropologists who took them many years before. Grave robbers were paid to get these bones and turn them over to the scientists who then took them elsewhere for scientific study.
It was also one of those out-of-context, disassociated scenes that made me want to slap one of the characters as he spoke of the primitive shape of the… pacific islander’s skull. I say pacific islander for lack of a better word and for lack of a better memory — but you get the message.
At some point I found my internal voice saying things like, “Yes, change the scene please. I don’t want to listen to those idiots anymore!” Obviously the play was working on me (albeit not as the playwright had intended)… working on me and getting my emotions involved. Now that I think about it, what we were actually seeing was a tongue-in-cheek peak at historic anthropology.
The play’s director, Sammie Choy, said it best in her portion of the play’s write-up when she talks about both the aspect of “cultural memory” and playwright, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl’s thoughtful ability to take these seemingly separate scenes and treat them with equal amounts of understanding for both the native Hawaiians, and for the 19th century anthropologists. Choy writes that the anthropologists, as abominable as it is to us now, felt that “scientific advancement was a rationale for grave desecration.” After I had a chance to put it all in perspective, I understand what Kneubuhl was trying to accomplish.
Kumu Kahua Theater has a newsletter that explains all of these things. Had I read the issue with the synopsis and the essays by others about this play, I would have known what it was I was watching. But, then again, wouldn’t that have spoiled it? I don’t know. If I had read it ahead of time, my intellect might have been more involved with my experience of the play rather than my emotions.
If I hadn’t already been feeling that emotional impact, perhaps the closing monologue by Liliha, the spirit member of the cast portrayed by cast member, Mane, would not have been as capable of bringing me to tears. I already felt anger so the pain and subsequent restitution experienced by the wronged spirit of Chiefess Liliha was no problem for me to assume and digest.
Worth seeing? Absolutely. Advice? Read the newsletter so you know what it is you’re watching! You won’t spoil the story, so don’t worry. What it will do is help you to understand and appreciate the humor in it a little more.
One more tip: bring a napkin or tissue, just in case you need it. In a short little essay, Justina Mattos calls Ola Na Iwi a postmodernist look at science and culture. I have to agree. Mattos also quotes a portion of the closing monologue that we get from our ghost, the spirit of Liliha, which wraps it all up nicely and brings us emotional people to tears as it brings Liliha home. The part of that monologue that gets me even now:
“Lay me there on a bed of green ferns, of palapalai and laua’e, and maybe a bit of maile you found along the way. Hide the resting place with rocks and branches, hide it so only the birds know where I am, and then leave me. Leave me in the breathing, beating heart of my beloved ‘aina.”
The play continues through December 2nd. Check out the schedule of performances here.
Kumu Kahua Theater
46 Merchant Street
Honolulu, HI 96813