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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 2, 2001

Stage Scene
Sharing the Hawaiian culture through theater

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

U'ilani Kapuaakuni, Venus Kapuaala and Daryl Bonilla star in "Ola Ka Lau," a play about healing.

Brad Goda

. . .

'Ola Ka Lau'

Premiering 8 p.m. Thursday; repeating 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (except Nov. 22) and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 9

Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.

$16 general, $13 seniors, $10 students ($13, $11, $5 on Thursdays)


Take Tammy Haili'opua Baker's Hawaiian-language class and you'll learn more than just vocabulary.

You learn about a way of life.

A requirement in her University of Hawai'i-Manoa class: Attend or participate in at least two cultural activities, from working at the fish pond in He'eia to attending a workshop on pala'au (healing with herbs).

Here, the Hawaiian language is alive.

"We're not just talking about it, it's about hands-on experience," Baker said with unmistakable fervor in her voice. "By doing that, they see life for it. It's no longer something in a book. It's applicable to their daily lives."

And she definitely walks the talk.

Founder of Ka Ha'au Hanakeaka, the first Hawaiian-language theater company, Baker, who will be directing "Ola Ka Lau" ("The Leaf Lives On"), opening at Kumu Kahua Theatre Thursday, believes in perpetuating the Hawaiian culture through words and actions.

In addition to writing screenplays that explore issues within the Hawaiian community, she finds other ways of getting involved in the creative process, of sharing her culture with eager others.

The play she's directing tackles the very concept of tradition and perpetuation, something she takes very seriously.

"This play is about the passing down of tradition, about indigenous and ancestral knowledge," she explained. "That's something that rang a bell for me. It's a huge issue (in our community). We're losing our kupuna pretty rapidly ... That kind of knowledge they hold, we'll never experience. If we don't bridge the gap and make an effort to learn from them before they're gone, all of that is going to go. I feel that it's our responsibility to step up to bat and be there and be eager to learn and pick up what we can before they leave us."

The story, written by playwright Kimo Armitage, follows two cousins learning the ritual of healing from a family kupuna. One is reluctant to learn despite her gift for pala'au; the other is eager but dying from an illness that no medicine, old or new, can cure.

The gifted cousin battles her own personal demons, trapped in an abusive relationship. The other tries to help his cousin, carrying an emotional load that weighs heavily on his fragile soul.

"Ola Ka Lau" won the Kumu Kahua Theatre/UH Theatre Department Playwriting contest in 1997.

The passing down of traditions is important to Baker, who grew up immersed in the Hawaiian culture on Kaua'i.

"It was a daily practice," said the 29-year-old, who took her first Hawaiian-language class at UH. "It was in the way we related to each other. It was ingrained in who we are. Taking care of one another, being humble — those kinds of values you are raised with. I would attribute that to the Hawaiian identity."

With stars in her eyes, Baker, an aspiring actress, never thought she would be working behind the scenes in theater. But when she discovered there weren't a lot of plays written in Hawaiian or about the Hawaiian community, she decided that the need for these stories to be told was more important than her need to be on stage.

"I became a playwright by default," said Baker, who has written several plays, including her company's first touring play, "Ka Lua I Ko'olau," in 1995. "I wanted to do a play in Hawaiian and there weren't any, so I just had to write one myself ... But I love to write; it's so much fun. And directing is neat because you can sculpt things. That's exciting and challenging."

She wants to see growth, change, impact in the process of perpetuating the Hawaiian culture. Perhaps a place that showcases Hawaiian-language theater, Hawaiian art, music and dance. A tool for education and community-building. A place where the language lives and breathes.

But for now she does what she can, from providing Hawaiian-language and -themed plays to instilling the value of passing down traditions and learning about the culture in her students.

"They're so happy to take part in (cultural activities) and they want more," Baker said about her students' reactions to the requirement of spending time outside class to learn about their heritage. "It's awesome. They crave to be part of this kind of stuff. This is the kind of learning you can't learn in a western atmosphere. All their senses are affected. They smell, they feel, they touch, they hear, they experience. And that is huge."