Story by Ronald Williams Jr.
Photos by Sammie Choy
Downtown Honolulu is abuzz. A dramatic political confrontation is taking place. A policeman has been shot, armed Marines are marching through the streets and rumors of a coup are spreading. On the sidewalk fronting ‘Iolani Palace, an anxious crowd gathers. A woman dressed in a regal gown of silver and blue stands at the top of the palace’s steps and addresses everyone, proclaiming, “I, Lili‘uokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the Constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a provisional government of and for this kingdom.” The crowd bends toward her in unison. “Now,” she continues, “to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest and impelled by said force, yield my authority until such time as the government of the United States shall reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom.”
Three remarkable days have played in the imaginations of many who live in the Islands or study its past: January 14 to 17, 1893, when a group of sugar magnates and missionary sons ousted Queen Lili‘uokalani with support the US Marines. Now that drama is unfolding again, though the stately woman atop the palace steps today is not the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. She is retired librarian Nyla Fujii-Babb, an actress and cast member in Mai Poina (“Don’t Forget”), a living-history re-enactment of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. For the crowd watching, the scene is all the more poignant because they know the outcome: Lili‘uokalani was never reinstated and the nation lost its independence.
Part living-history play, part walking tour, Mai Poina’s free performances have become immensely popular since they were begun in 2009. Now staged annually, the tour leads small groups of twenty or so audience members through seven different stations around ‘Iolani Palace. At each they’re presented with vignettes of Honolulu residents from the era: a Japanese plantation worker, cane knife in hand; a Native Hawaiian churchgoer speaking about the actions of the missionaries; a Greek merchant trading in the Islands; and, of course, Her Majesty Queen Lili‘uokalani decrying the coup that ended her reign and her kingdom’s independence. The point, says director Sammie Choy, is to connect people as directly as possible to the people who lived these events. “Theater can give an immediacy to the history—the stress, the fear in those moments. Seeing armed US Marines marching down the streets of Honolulu in 1893 … Can you imagine that? With this production you’re breathing the same air as these actors, you feel the history on a gut level.”