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Vol. 17, no. 2
April / May 2014


Looking Through the Legend 

Story by Paul Wood
Photos by Sue Hudelson

The story of Ko‘olau “the leper” has been turned into literature several times — a 1909 piece of short fiction by Jack London, a book-length narrative poem by WS Merwin, a kabuki theater interpretation, even a puppet show. The dramatic story of one fugitive’s resistance to an entire government is well known in the Islands, and now O‘ahu-born playwright Gary Kubota has retold the heroic tale. To do so he went back to the source materials, including reports from the soldiers who hunted Ko‘olau and in particular the recollections of Ko‘olau’s widow Pi‘ilani. Pi‘ilani’s intensely lyrical account of her life with Ko‘olau was recorded in 1906 by a Hawaiian journalist and published in Hawaiian. With the help of a translator, Kubota went through this material, keeping his focus on the protagonist Ko‘olau, who left no record of his own.

“I’m trying to present him as a human being,” says Kubota. To that end he has developed a script for a one-actor play, The Legend of Ko‘olau. Here, his play says, is the man: Let us live with him on his strange ride toward his destiny. The narrator moves easily between confession and re-enactments of events, taking the audience through the entirety of his astonishing story. Kubota’s script has now been given several staged readings, initially at the Waimea Historic Theater on Kaua‘i, located just a few miles from Ko‘olau’s former home. Every reading moved audiences to laughter and tears, even to standing ovations. The Maui Arts & Cultural Center helped Kubota secure funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The evolution of this work, which Kubota says has taken some thirty years, will culminate with a May 16 staging at Hawaii Theatre in Honolulu. In the dry tones of a writer who has pushed his project down a long, rocky path, Kubota says, “This could get big.”

The story itself is definitely big. Though the setting is remote—a distant island, at the close of the nineteenth century—and the characters humble—a Hawaiian cowboy, his devoted wife and their young son —the tale unfolds with the moral weight of a Greek tragedy.