Malia Nobrega and Kalama Cabigon, seated center, are the stars of the play by Kaliko Baker, seated left, and Haili'opua Baker, seated right. Photo by Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin

'Off-Blaisdell' play brings Hawaiian language into the theater

By Catherine Kekoa Enomoto

A young married couple, their sheepskins barely collected from the hallowed halls of Manoa, are launching a new art form - Hawaiian-language theater. And, they're taking their original production "off-Blaisdell" - to the Kamehameha Schools auditorium Saturday.

"I really wanted to find a way to bring our language into the theater," said 24-year-old Tammy Haili'opua Gonsalves Baker. She is co-writer, co-producer and director of "Kaluaiko'olau, Ke Ka'e'a'e'a O Na Pali Kalalau" - Kaluaiko'olau, the Hero of the Kalalau Cliffs.

"Theater has always been my focus and source of enjoyment," Baker said, "so I combined two of my interests. Opening a new avenue for our language probably was the biggest goal, and I finally had the means to do it."

The means were "knowledge of the language and knowledge from my theater background," said the six-year student of Hawaiian, who received her B.A. in theater from the University of Hawaii last May.

"It is really the story of the power of female strength and love," said her husband, co-writer and co-producer Chris Kaliko Baker, 23. He also graduated from UH in May, with a B.A. in Hawaiian language.

Keali'i Reichel - celebrated recording artist, award-winning kumu hula and Hawaiian-language teacher - was so impressed with the play that he arranged to have it staged on Maui last weekend. An estimated 200 people, many of them Punana Leo Hawaiian-language-immersion students, saw the production at Maui Waena Intermediate School.

It's the true story of Kaluaiko'olau, a folk hero who had Hansen's disease. Rather than be shipped off to isolation on Molokai, he and his family hid in the Kalalau cliffs of Kauai for three years starting in 1893.

Eventually, his son Kaleimanu contracted and died of Hansen's disease, followed by the father. The wife Pi'ilani returned to relay the story to scholar/editor Kahikina Sheldon, who documented the tale. Sheldon's 100-page Hawaiian-language manuscript is available at UH Hamilton Library.

"It was so powerful. There were about 12 scenes and from the second act, I cried throughout the whole thing," said Liana Iaea Honda, who saw the play at UH Kennedy Theatre in December and again on Maui. "You just felt for those families that had to be separated from each other because someone in the family had leprosy. And then their son died while they were in Kalalau. I was sobbing out loud, it was so terrible, so sad. I just hate the pain and anguish. (But) the love was so apparent in the family."

The play stars Kalama Cabigon and Malia Nobrega, as Kaluaiko'olau and Pi'ilani, respectively. The production starts with Kawika McGuire and the cast of 20 singing "Na Pali Outlaw," which provides an English synopsis for nonspeakers as well as fluent speakers of Hawaiian.

For nonspeakers of Hawaiian, attending the play is like going to an opera in Italian, German or French. Language is not a barrier to real drama. As Honda said, "There's a program with a brief synopsis (but) you can understand and you can feel what's happening."

Haili'opua Baker added, "For some people the play might be an awakening about what is going on politically in our world today, how AIDS discrimination is similar to leprosy discrimination - how we're so afraid of what we don't know."

But perhaps the real message is the medium - the native tongue going "off-Blaisdell."

"We need this for the language to thrive and flourish," she said. "It's a new avenue, where we can embrace theater as a form of entertainment and also as a form of transferring history and knowledge. It's educational and also entertaining."

The facts

What: "Kaluaiko'olau, Ke Ka'e'a'e'a O Na Pali Kalalau"
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Princess Ke'elikolani Auditorium, Kamehameha Schools
Tickets: $10, available at Native Books & Beautiful Things, 222 Merchant St.; through 'Ahahui 'Olelo Hawai'i, or at the door
Information: 528-5453

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