East-West Center exhibit highlights hana keaka, Hawaiian theater
The art of hana keaka, or Hawaiian theater, dates back hundreds of years. Native Hawaiians combined storytelling with mele, chants, incantations and dance. They became the foundation for the cultural practice.
Kumu Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker has been working in hana keaka for nearly 30 years.
She started as a student at the University of Hawaiʻi and wrote her first full length play in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in 1995. Shortly after that, she and others formed Ka Hālau Hanakeaka, a Hawaiian language theater group.
Now she’s the director of the university’s Hawaiian Theatre Program.
“I’m feeling like the work that we have done is getting its validation now,” she said. “And that validation is having a program that is focused on kānaka maoli, telling their stories, and elevating and honoring our kupuna.”
The East-West Center recently opened an exhibit that chronicles the history of hana keaka and its growing presence at UH Mānoa. It features costumes, instruments, props, photos and videos of past hana keaka productions.
The university’s Hawaiian Theatre Program opened in 2014, and Baker and her students staged their first production in 2015 at Kennedy Theatre. She points out that that happened decades after Kennedy Theatre opened.
“That was significant,” she said. “It was a matter of claiming space and opening the doors to a very underserved community.”
There are four kūkulu, or pillars, of hana keaka. They are stories, genealogical connections, visual and performing arts, and ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.
Their productions are mostly performed in Hawaiian.
“There’s really no place else in the world you can go to that would have a ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi production,” Baker said. “This is the language in which these encounters occurred. And therefore, we’re going to be authentic and have ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi on stage.”
Annie Reynolds, the East-West Center’s exhibitions and collections curator, has worked with Baker for the past two years to make the exhibit a reality. She said she enjoys watching the program’s hana keaka productions.
“So the story really comes through,” Reynolds said. “And I was just feeling like this was something really special that was happening at that time.”
The exhibit is free and open through January at the East-West Center Gallery. Baker and her students will also debut the first-ever Hawaiian language adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” from Nov. 18 to 20.
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Editor’s note: Kennedy Theatre is an underwriter of Hawaiʻi Public Radio.