Story By: David Thompson
Photos By: Dana Edmunds
With fifteen months of preparation, ten
thousand miles of travel and a small fortune in fundraising behind them, the
cast of Ha‘upu is about to take the
stage in Scotland for the first time. They are Hawaiian high school students
who have come to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest performing
arts festival, to present their culture on the international stage in a way it
hasn’t been seen before: in the form of a Hawaiian-language opera.
The man standing in the wings wearing a bow
tie, a flattop haircut and a dour expression is Eric Stack, Ha‘upu’s director and the head of the
theater program at the Hawai‘i Island campus of Kamehameha Schools, which the
cast attends. In his preshow pep talk Stack told the students, “We’re giving
our culture its voice in the world.” Nobody dared to say it, but gnawing at the
back of their minds was an awful question: What if the world doesn’t give a
Ha‘upu is a reinterpretation of the legend of
Hina, the Hawaiian Helen of Troy. Kidnapped from her home in Hilo by the rogue
chief Kapepe‘ekauila and brought to his mountain fastness at Ha‘upu, on the
north shore of Moloka‘i, Hina becomes the object of an epic search-and-rescue
operation by her sons, the dashing Niheu and the oddball Kana, deity of rope,
vines and spiderwebs. Hina comes to appreciate the Moloka‘i people, who have
rejected the rigid kapu system, with its practice of human sacrifice, under
which the rest of Hawai‘i lives. And she falls in love with Kapepe‘ekauila.
It’s a fast-paced production, filled with
hula, chanting, pageantry, the supernatural, catchy musical hooks, complex
choreography and chaotic battles that remind some of the Brits in the audience
of rugby scrums. Apart from its operatic envelope, it’s a thoroughly Hawaiian
production. It’s also a thoroughly challenging production for a non-Hawaiian
audience: an enigmatic Polynesian myth filled with unfamiliar characters and
symbolism, laden with plot twists and sung in a beautiful but unintelligible
As the audience is still taking its seats,
the lights go down and nineteen cast members swarm the stage. They form a
circle, hold hands and launch into two opening chants, invoking wisdom from
above and from their ancestors. This is the Hawaiian cultural protocol; it’s
not part of the opera. But it segues into the performance, which begins with a
chant by the sorceress Uli, who explains (in Hawaiian, of course) the conflict
between Hilo and Ha‘upu, and prophesizes the doom of the latter.
Act One is loaded with action and drama, yet
when the actors look into the audience they can’t help but notice that not
everyone seems to be paying attention. Eyes are gazing into laps. It appears
that people are falling asleep. Maybe the world isn’t interested in something
so Hawaiian after all.
The actors remain focused despite the heavy
lids out there. They’ve been trained to control their emotions by controlling
their breath and to give energy to each other so they will have something to
give to the audience. The stage crackles with this shared energy. The eight
chaperones—teachers, alumni serving as stage crew and the school nurse—know the
show well and realize early on that this is shaping up to be the best
performance of Ha‘upu yet. No matter
all the chins to chests throughout the theater.
But the audience, it turns out, isn’t falling
asleep. It’s trying to keep up. Those bobbing heads are not nodding off; they
are reading the program, which lays out the story in detail, scene by scene. At
the end of Act Three, after Kapepe‘ekauila and his people sing their song for
the final time before they’re slaughtered and Uli’s prophecy is fulfilled, the
audience gives a sustained standing ovation.
The actors make their curtain call then go
backstage and begin packing up; the theater is tightly booked and they have
just fifteen minutes to break down and clear out before the next show comes in.
But the audience wants an encore. Instead, the house lights come up. The crowd
lingers until the theater manager is forced to announce that it’s time to leave
When the cast exits the theater, wearing
raincoats over their costumes and carrying their props, they are surprised to
find a good portion of the audience is waiting for them outside. Some are members
of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club, fans of the Scottish author who spent time
in and wrote lovingly of Hawai‘i. Others are from Trinity Preparatory School in
Texas; they’re at the festival to perform their own play, a musical version of
The Addams Family. “If my students were half as passionate onstage as your guys
are, I’d be happy,” a teacher from Trinity tells Stack.
After a few minutes of kudos, questions and
hugs, the Ha‘upu cast spontaneously
arrange themselves into a semicircle and Makana Waikiki, a senior who plays
Nu‘akea, Hina’s Moloka‘i confidante, speaks. “Thank you for coming to our show
and being so kind and loving and generous,” she says. Then the group sings “Oli
Mahalo,” a.k.a. the gratitude chant, warming a gray street of the Scottish
capital with the Polynesian melody. It’s a song the kids end up singing a lot
during their two weeks in Britain, using it to thank everyone who does them a
good turn. One crusty tour bus driver, unaccustomed to such recognition, was
seen dabbing tears from his eyes after his “Oli Mahalo.” The audience outside
the theater is also moved by the song. “Oh, I am definitely coming back to see
this show again,” says a boy from Texas.
“Defying the norm since 1947” is the
Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s tagline. That was the year eight British theater
companies that had not been invited to the newly formed Edinburgh International
Festival showed up anyway. They staged performances at the YMCA, in a church,
in a movie theater and at similar venues “on the fringe” of the main event. As
the gate-crashing continued in subsequent years, a new festival was born. With
its open-to-all ethos, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe grew so popular it
eclipsed the Edinburgh International Festival—and all other festivals of its
kind in the world.
For three weeks every August, thousands of
performers appear on hundreds of stages set up around the city. Well-known
performers vie for attention with the little-known and the completely unknown
in a picturesque city overflowing with theater, music, dance, comedy, circus,
cabaret, children’s shows and just about anything else you can think of.
Attendance now tops one million. At the 2016 Fringe there are 3,269 shows
staged in 294 venues. Altogether there are 50,266 performances—including four
stagings of Ha‘upu.
The Fringe has a reputation for the
experimental and the unusual, but one of its most incongruous elements might
very well be the hundreds of American high school students who descend upon it
each year. They come as part of the American High School Theatre Festival, one
of several side festivals held in conjunction with the Fringe. Participation in
the AHSTF is by invitation only and requires nomination by two college theater
professionals, something the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s performing arts
department gladly provided for Ha‘upu.
The students stay together in dorms at the
University of Edinburgh. They dine together, attend mixers and go to each
other’s shows, guaranteeing that every performance has an audience. Ha‘upu is staged in a pop-up theater in
a spacious hall at the Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons. There are no
dressing rooms—not that the cast would have time to use them anyway—so all of Ha‘upu’s costuming and makeup is done at
the dorm. A bus drops the actors a block from the venue and they walk the rest
of the way in full ancient Hawaiian regalia, a procession of loin-cloths,
feathered cloaks, ti leaf rain capes, wicker helmets, spears, stone maces and
Marching along the brick street, there’s
Pomai Longakit, the easygoing senior who plays Uli, wearing old-woman makeup
and a massive head of frizzed sorceress hair, grayed with baby powder. There’s
Ku‘uhiapo Jeong, the junior playing Kana, the supernatural string being, in his
high-crested ropey headpiece and coarsely netted rope cape (made by the
school’s grounds-keeper, who is very good at knots). There’s Daylan-Blake
Kala‘i, the senior playing Kapepe‘ekauila, who also played lead roles in
Kamehameha’s productions of South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof. His costume
and makeup for Ha‘upu, which includes
a half-body checkerboard tattoo and a blind eye slashed in battle, takes two
hours. “The tattoo takes forever, the eye scar takes forever and getting the
white contact in takes forever,” he says.
Some of the cast has had to work harder than
others to realize their characters. But for Hiwa Brown, the junior who plays
Hina, it came easily. “Hina goes through a lot of emotions all the time and is
constantly changing,” Hiwa says. “I’m like that too. I change in a snap. You
can ask anybody. But because I’ve always felt so similar to Hina to begin with,
it’s always been easy to switch into the character from myself.” She stands in
contrast to Ku‘uhiapo, who has been known to take personal offense on behalf of
his character if he perceives a slight to Kana.
Ku‘uhiapo is listening as Hiwa explains her
backstory to a fan. “Hina was an ali‘i [aristocrat] from Hilo who was married
to Hakalanileo, and her two main sons were Niheu and Kana,” she says. “Hina
gave Kana up once he was born because he was born as a piece of rope. So she
gave him to Uli, who is Hina’s mother.”
Ku‘uhiapo interrupts: “Gave him to Uli? What
are you talking about? You threw me in a cane field!” In the various versions
of the legend, Kana is born as a rope or a piece of string, and Hina discards
him in a cane field or sometimes a pigsty; he’s discovered by his grandmother
Uli, who uses magic to animate him, then raises him as her own.
“Well, you end up with Uli,” Hiwa says.
Ku‘uhiapo grumbles about abandonment, and Hiwa says, “You end up with Uli—isn’t
that better?” “Yes,” he concedes, “that’s better.” “He’s touchy about his
character,” Hiwa says.
Edinburgh covers roughly the same area as
Hilo, but with half a million residents it has ten times the population. The
Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare running through the medieval Old Town part
of the city. It stretches from Edinburgh Castle, perched on a hill in the heart
of the city, to Holyrood Palace, Queen Elizabeth’s residence in Scotland. The
Royal Mile is the geographic heart of the Fringe, with several blocks closed to
traffic and clamoring with crowds and street performers.
Ha‘upu is booked for twenty minutes on
one of the Royal Mile’s outdoor stages to provide a taste of what the Hawaiians
have to offer. Their slot falls between a Scottish folk/Hindustani classical
music group and a “live action graphic novel,” with actors doing voices for
comic book graphics projected on a screen behind them. At the stage the Ha‘upu players doff their coats, kick
off their shoes and perform parts of two scenes. A crowd gathers as the
Moloka‘i and Hilo warriors meet in a face-off that’s part Maori haka and part
West Side Story, with some Power Ranger martial arts moves thrown in. But as
quickly as the act ends, the onlookers begin dispersing; there are just too
many other spectacles along the Royal Mile to see. The actors quickly regroup
and perform Kapepe‘e-kauila’s joyous return to Moloka‘i with spoils from the
raid on Hilo. A crowd re-assembles, but again thins rapidly as soon as the
scene is complete. The chaperones and students trying to pass out fliers for
the show find hardly any takers.
It looks like Ha‘upu’s moment on the Royal Mile has passed. Then Pono Brown, who
has the role of Hina’s indifferent husband, Hakalanileo, starts strumming his
‘ukulele. As a 2016 graduate of Kamehameha, he’s the only cast member who isn’t
a student. But during his four years of high school, he appeared in every
theatrical production there was, and graduation hasn’t stopped him from
appearing in this one. A few of the boys begin singing along as he strums, and
Ku‘uhiapo steps onstage and begins to dance a hula.
When Ku‘uhiapo is in Kana mode, he can tap
into something deeply creepy, more like he’s channeling a supernatural force
than acting. But when dancing hula, he’s a fifteen-year-old Hawaiian kid from
Puna who has been practicing since he was four. He moves with precision and
elegance, and he exudes joy. Some of the girls join in, dancing barefooted on
the brick street. The passing throngs cannot resist and a crowd re-forms. The
leafleters get back to work, passing out fliers and doling out kukui and
plaited ribbon lei to anyone showing interest. For a few minutes the Royal Mile
could be Kalakaua Avenue, and a tiny piece of Scotland becomes a genuinely
Kamehameha Schools is not the first Hawai‘i
high school to participate in the AHSTF. Five students from Maryknoll School in
Honolulu, in fact, are also performing at the 2016 Fringe. Still, the presentation
of Ha‘upu at the Fringe is a first in
many ways. It is the first Hawaiian-language production staged at the Fringe
and the first authentic hula presentation seen there. It’s the first time
Kamehameha has taken one of its Ho‘ike productions—the annual all-school
theatrical performance—on the road. It’s the first time most of the students
have been to Europe, and it’s the first time some of them have been off Hawai‘i
Ha‘upu, however, isn’t Kamehameha’s
first Hawaiian-language opera. The Hawai‘i Island campus’ drama department has
been exploring the form since its 2012 Ho‘ike, when it slipped one opera scene
into a Hawaiian-language play. Two full-length Hawaiian-language operas
followed in the 2013 and 2014 Ho‘ike. Ha‘upu
was first performed at the Ho‘ike in early 2016. The original version was three
hours long and featured the entire student body, most of whom sang in the
chorus. The cast of the traveling version was cut down to the bare bones, and
the length was halved.
Herb Mahelona is the school’s choral director
and the musical director for Ha‘upu.
He wrote all three of Kamehameha’s operas, as well as five earlier operas for
the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. His writing process involves spending time at
the locations represented in the stories and simply listening. “I hear stuff on
the wind, in the ocean—it’s crazy,” he says.
Stack, who is from Moloka‘i, took Mahelona to the lookout on the cliffs high
above Kalaupapa on the north shore, as close as they could get to the actual
Ha‘upu, which is as inaccessible in real life as it is in legend. Mahelona came
away with a sense that the past denizens of Ha‘upu were “deeply connected to
nature, really joyful and uninhibited.” That feeling comes through in
Kapepe‘ekauila’s bouncy, tribal theme song.
Mahelona is already thinking about the music
for the next Ho‘ike, which will look at Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani, whose
father was from Edinburgh and who visited the city in the 1890s. On this trip
Mahelona goes to some of the places Ka‘iulani went to, and he listens.
Edinburgh has personal meaning for him, as well; it’s the city his
great-grandfather left behind to help manage a sugar plantation in Hawai‘i.
“I’m having a lot of chicken-skin moments,” he says. “When I hear those
bagpipes play, I don’t want to leave.” Even the damp gray weather speaks to
him. The Scottish part of him doesn’t mind the cold at all. “The Hawaiian side
has some issues, though,” he says.
Stack wears his dour face all week long. He’s
got a lot to worry about. There’s so much that can go wrong. In addition to the
usual disasters that can befall a theater production, there are any number of
misadventures that might occur when injecting nineteen teenagers into a
bustling, party-minded city half a world from home. While these aren’t the kind
of kids to get into mischief—Stack calls them “the high-fliers”—some students
from other schools are sent home early for breaking AHSTF rules. That alone is
unnerving. Parents have entrusted their children to Stack’s care. Donors have contributed
$200,000 to send them to Scotland. The administration is watching. Stack feels
a tremendous responsibility to represent the school and the culture with honor.
“One tiny little snafu will blemish that, and we don’t want that to happen,” he
warns the cast.
But there are no major mishaps onstage or
off. Stack’s high-fliers don’t let him down. At the cast meeting in the dorm
after the final show, Stack’s face looks more at ease than it has all week. “We
have come to the biggest performing arts festival in the world to put on
something like this,” he says. “I feel we have accomplished something big in
our history—at least our school history, if not the culture’s. … You should
feel some satisfaction that you’ve done this, that it’s in the books. Because
it’s one of these things that you’re going to carry for the rest of your life.”