Survival against all odds
It’s not very often that a Maui playwright has the opportunity to present an original world-premiere play, but local writer Gary T. Kubota will be doing just that on Saturday night at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. His saga, “Legend of Ko’olau,” is the historical account of the life of Kaluaiko’olau, a Kauai paniolo and rebel, starring Ed Ka’ahea in the title role. It is a tale of love and survival against all odds.
Ko’olau, a Hawaiian cowboy, fought against a militia that had overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. “You have to understand Hawaii was going through a radical transition,” says Kubota. “If you didn’t cooperate with the new regime and remained loyal to the monarchy, you would lose your job. He was just an ordinary guy sticking up for himself, and his sovereign rights, and trying to keep his family alive.” Amid this time of chaos and loss, the army and local law enforcement attempted to enforce the leprosy laws on Ko’olau and his family. Knowing that would force he and his son, who both suffered from leprosy, to the settlement at Kalaupapa, he took his family into the valley of Kalalau to escape deportation. His expertise as a marksman, keen knowledge of terrain, the resolve of his wife, Pi’ilani, and the vast wilderness of Kalalau Valley all contributed to his ability to elude capture. As hard as the authorities tried, they never caught him, and he lived in the valley for the rest of his life.
Kubota had his own journey in bringing Ko’olau’s tale back to life. While living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, a film student friend approached him to write a documentary. At the time he wasn’t satisfied with the research available, but revisited the idea many years later. Along the way, he read Jack London’s “Ko’olau, the Leper,” who London described as a “magnificent rebel.” In the 1980s while meeting with famed poet W.S. Merwin, Kubota shared his stories of Ko’olau and suggested Merwin could take the idea and perhaps write something. That meeting resulted in Merwin’s “The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative,” a poetic novel written from the perspective of Pi’ilani. After decades of seeking authenticity, Kubota decided to write a monologue in order to hear Ko’olau’s voice, as an exercise to better tell the story. The result was a one-man play that he never intended to write.
Ko’olau took his family and a small band of lepers into Kalalau, then to the rugged Na Pali Coast on Kauai’s north shore. Ko’olau and the small cooperative set up camp in the valley where they raised goats, planted crops and fished. He became revered, like Saint Damien, for taking care of the tired and sick, risking his life for the colony and preaching peace in the face of impending violence. There are two biographical accounts of Ko’olau’s battles with a Kauai deputy sheriff, who the cowboy reportedly shot and killed. One account said Ko’olau shot the sheriff for refusing to leave him in peace; the other said the sheriff was killed as Ko’olau saved his wife from an attempted rape. As a result, he was forced to move deeper into the remote valley to escape those seeking revenge for the sheriff’s death. When a bounty was put on his head, Ko’olau took his son, Kalei, up into the cliffs, where they lived in a lava tube cave. The two would visit Pi’ilani and the others at the colony, occasionally bringing Pi’ilani to stay with them in the cave.
Embarrassed by the inability to capture Ko’olau, the navy finally brought a gun boat to the shore of the Kalalau Valley and blasted cannons at the settlement. Shortly thereafter, the lepers were forced out and sent to Kalaupapa. Only Ko’olau remained. Legend has it that Ko’olau died somewhere in the cliffs and only his wife knew the whereabouts of his remains.
Kubota presented the work in progress as a staged reading at the Waimea Historic Theater on Kauai (just a few miles from the place Ko’olau called home), where actors Ed Ka’ahea and Keo Woolford each read one act. The theater company, compelled by audience reactions, wanted to see Kubota’s play produced professionally and eventually cosponsored a grant written by the MACC to the National Performance Network of New Orleans. The NPN is supported by the NEA, the Ford Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and many others. In addition, it has 60-plus members of theatrical organizations, not unlike the MACC. Kubota has been invited to New Orleans in December, where he hopes a tour of “Legend of Ko’olau,” will be funded by theaters around the United States. In the meantime, he hopes Hawaii residents will embrace this play as it tours the Big Island, Kauai and Oahu after Saturday’s Maui premiere.
“Hawaiians need more stories about them. It’s pushing the envelope to a certain degree to get native Hawaiians to attend theater. It’s a Hawaiian story presented in a Western format, and it’s been vetted by several kupuna for accuracy and correct pronunciation,” Kubota said. “Some people will ask why he doesn’t speak in pidgin, but pidgin was not the language of the realm, the immigrant workers spoke pidgin. Many Hawaiians attended missionary school and were fluent in both English and their native Hawaiian. Ko’olau and Pi’ilani . . . were educated people.”
Also this week
“FatBoy,” a hip-hop dance theater work by Teo Castellanos, explores world poverty, hunger, American consumerism and waste. The multimedia performance is also influenced by Balinese rice rituals and mythology, as well as traditional Buddhist movement. “FatBoy” incorporates reggae dub music composed by Grammy-nominated DJ LeSpam. “FatBoy” takes the stage at 7:30 tonight in Castle Theater at the MACC. General admission tickets are $28 (plus applicable fees).
Seabury Hall presents “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, directed by Todd Van Amburgh. Performances are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 17 in the A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center at the Makawao campus. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for students. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 573-1257 or visit www.seaburyhall.org.
Baldwin High School Performing Arts Learning Center and the Baldwin Theatre Guild present “Cinderella’s Glass Slipper,” book by Vera Morris, music and lyrics by Bill Francoeur, directed by Linda Carnevale and under the musical direction of Tana Larson. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 17, with a 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 16, in the Loudon Mini-Theatre at the back of the Baldwin High School campus in Wailuku. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and teachers, $7 for ages 11 to 17, and $6 for ages 10 and younger, available at the box office only, one hour prior to showtime.
Kamehameha Maui Campus High School Drama Club presents “One Evening, Two Comedies” at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Keopuolani Hale on the Kamehameha campus in Pukalani. Admission is free. For more information, see maui.ksbe.edu/.