TOM LEE'S PUPPET SHOW DIGNIFIES KAUA'I MAN'S STRUGGLE TO DIE FREE
The story of Ko'olau: Love, commitment, sacrifice
By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Lee Cataluna
In 1892, a man diagnosed with Hansen's disease - called leprosy at the time - fled to the remote mountains of Kaua'i rather than be forcibly exiled to the disease colony in Kalaupapa.
The true story of Kalua'iko'olau and his fight to die a free man has inspired books, poems and theatrical productions. It opened recently in perhaps the most well-known experimental theater in New York, the La MaMa theater.
The off-off-Broadway production of "Ko'olau" is a puppet show.
But no, not like Punch and Judy.
It is an intimate and emotionally moving performance drawn from the Japanese kuru-ma ningyo style of puppetry. The puppets are hand-carved, simple and raw, and inspired by Hawaiian design elements. The puppeteers appear on stage, holding the puppets and sometimes shaping the set with their own bodies.
The production also uses shadow projections and video images to tell the story of a man who would not leave his family, and their commitment to stay together no matter what.
Tom Lee designed and directed the production. The Mililani High graduate first heard the story of Ko'olau while visiting Kaua'i and was moved to learn more.
"When I first read about Kalua'iko'olau, I was completely blown away," Lee said via e-mail. "It is not only an intensely personal story of a love of the highest order, but also an important moment in the history of Hawai'i."
In the 1890s, Hansen's disease tore families apart. The dreaded diagnosis meant being removed from home and family and forcibly sent away to the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula. There were no visits. There was no cure.
Ko'olau fled with his wife, Pi'ilani, and their young son, Kaleimanu, from their home in Kekaha, Kaua'i, into the remote Kalalau Valley. The family was pursued by a posse of law enforcement officers, and Ko'olau shot a deputy sheriff and two soldiers of the provisional government. He became an outlaw, and the family lived hidden in the valley until first the little boy and then Ko'olau died. Pi'ilani buried her son and husband, then returned home. In 1906, Pi'ilani's story, "Ka Mo'olelo 'Oia'i'o O Kalua'iko'olau," was dictated by her and written in the Hawaiian language.
The story was the inspiration for Jack London's "Koolau the Leper" and W.S. Merwin's "The Folding Cliffs."
In a media release about the production, Lee talked about the different versions of the story:
"Pi'ilani's source text is nothing like a diatribe. Instead it is a deeply moving expression of aloha. ... Her recollection is filled with a deep and mournful love for her husband and son, and the awesome power and beauty of the place that sheltered them as fugitives. Pi'ilani's story also does not focus on leprosy, but rather on the struggle of the family to survive together. Jack London's text, on the other hand, is sensationalist and ignorant. It made Ko'olau out to be a monster. ... Though the story of Ko'olau is that of a rebel, it is also the story of love, commitment and sacrifice of the highest order."
It is certainly not the type of material that would make the average person think "puppet show!" But this is not the average person's puppet show.
"Puppetry touches something very basic in people's psyche," Lee explained. "It is an ancient form of expression present in almost every culture - even in Hawai'i in the hula ki'i form. I think all types of stories can be told through puppetry, from the epic and sublime to the most silly and hilarious."
The faces of the puppets in this production are unchanging, so the emotions don't come from the puppet itself but from the way the puppeteer moves.
"There is a moment when the family is descending into Kalalau at night. The boy Kaleimanu is carried by his father, Ko'olau, and with Pi'ilani, his wife, the three struggle and climb over cliffs made of the puppeteers' own bodies," Lee said. "At the end of their journey the family huddles together, exhausted, and falls asleep. When the audience sees these small figures curled together, it is often an emotional moment because the audience has experienced the struggle of their climbing and links those feelings to the small puppets."
Tom Lee is the son of former state Rep. Sam Lee and present state Rep. Marilyn Lee. In 1991, he attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After graduation, he moved to New York to work in theater.
His first exposure to puppetry, though, was in a summer program during high school.
"I was a participant in the Special Program for Enhancement of Basic Education program at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo," Lee said. "As part of our theater studies, we performed a bunraku-style puppet show of the story of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. The SPEBE program was a huge influence on me and the other students."
Lee is in his second year as a principal puppeteer in "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera. He has performed around the world in La MaMa's touring productions, and he teaches theater and puppet design at Sarah Lawrence College.
This production of "Ko'olau" was developed at the Rhodopi International Theater in Bulgaria, and at The Chocolate Factory Theater in New York. It has financial support from The Jim Henson Foundation.
Lee says it's his dream that the production will come to Hawai'i some day. He met with theater friends at UH-Manoa and UH-Hilo during his last visit home, but no firm plans have been set.
A different version of the Kalua'iko'olau story will be produced at Kumu Kahua Theatre next spring. This one, written by UH grad student Kemuel DeMoville, is to be done in the Noh style.
"I know there have been many theatrical versions of this story," Lee says. "I hope our production could add to the body of work about this important event in the history of Hawai'i."
Reach Lee Cataluna at email@example.com.