COURTESY KUMU KAHUA
A woman named Kawehi steals human remains from a German museum and brings them to Hawaii as "theatrical props," in Kumu Kahua's "Ola Na Iwi (The Bones Live)."
‘Ola Na Iwi’ explores cultural perspectives
Victoria Kneubuhl's 1994 drama about human remains is revived by Kumu Kahua
Kumu Kahua's revival of Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl's 1994 socio-political drama, "Ola Na Iwi (The Bones Live)," again encourages critical examination of cultural perspectives on the proper treatment of human remains in Hawaii and elsewhere.
'Ola Na Iwi (The Bones Live)'
Presented by Kumu Kahua Theatre
On stage: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 2
Place: Kumu Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Tickets: $13 to $16, with discounts available for seniors, students and the unemployed
Of most immediate concern in 2007 is the question of what should be done when a developer has the misfortune to dig up unmarked graves. Almost any American would object to their ancestors' remains being bulldozed over by someone who wants to make a few dollars, but until relatively recently the anonymous remains of 19th-century Hawaiians had no one to speak for them.
Next is the issue of opening graves for research purposes or commercial gain. Most of what is known about the cultures of pre-Christian Europe came from European scientists opening burial sites, and the process is continuing elsewhere as Chinese archeologists uncover the treasures of legendary emperors, and the migrations of the first peoples of Oceania are mapped by analyzing the DNA and isotope counts of ancient skeletons.
A third point of contention is keeping human remains and other items on display or in research collections in museums.
Kneubuhl was working on "Ola Na Iwi" before the theft -- "unauthorized removal" if you prefer -- of the two ka'ai (woven caskets containing human remains) from Bishop Museum in 1994. Rather than getting into the unique history of the ka'ai, which were placed in the museum's keeping by Prince Kuhio, she wrote a straightforward indictment of 19th-century anthropologists and grave robbers.
Kneubuhl's protagonist, a Hawaiian woman named Kawehi, steals a set of human remains from a German museum and brings them to Hawaii as "theatrical props." The museum sends an investigator to retrieve them and retains two Polynesian detectives to help crack the case.
Kawehi's non-Hawaiian boyfriend worries about the legal ramifications. She is also pressured and bullied by her boss, Pua, a Hawaiian who has jettisoned her Christian first name and her haole surname, and who brags of having been "a leader in the movement since the beginning."
Kneubuhl's friends probably know who the character is based on.
As with the original 1994 production, the most compelling and fully developed character is a mysterious woman named Nanea -- recognizable as the physical manifestation of an early19th-century alii, Liliha. It is Liliha's bones that Kawehi has brought home. As portrayed by single-monickered Mane in her Kumu Kahua debut, Liliha is once again the heart and soul of the production, conveying the pre-Christian Hawaiian perspective on the importance of treating bones properly.
Kneubuhl provides historical context on museum collections with segments in which anthropologists, scientists, phrenologists and grave robbers express the attitudes of their time. Another segment informs the audience that it was a Hawaiian, Queen Kaahumanu, who ordered the bones of many ancient alii removed from their containers, exposed to the sun (an extremely disrespectful act), and then burned after she converted to Christianity in 1824. Historians will note that from that day forward no member of the direct Kamehameha line produced a child that lived to adulthood, and within 50 years the line was extinct.
A comment about Nanea/Liliha being naked in one scene should be deleted -- Mane isn't, and doesn't need to be to tell the story -- but "Ola Na Iwi" is once again thought-provoking local theater.