story by Liza Simon
photos by Dana Edmunds
It’s the 1950s in Honolulu, and Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl is eavesdropping on the canasta game that her Hawaiian grandmother plays weekly with her old friend Mabel. The young Kneubuhl listens intently as the two elderly women reminisce about the time of the Hawaiian kingdom, about Princess Ka‘iulani’s funeral, about the day the American flag was raised over ‘Iolani Palace. Both women lived through these events; now, half a century later, they rue the bygone days, sometimes in hushed tones, causing Kneubuhl to lean in even closer to catch their words. “I always had a fascination with what generations before me were up to,” recalls the future playwright. “I was bug-eyed and all ears.”
Another pivotal scene in Kneubuhl’s life unfolds in 1963 in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. She is 13 and in the island territory for the first time. It is a foray far deeper into the Polynesian past, starting with the open-sided fale that comprises the airport. Here she is at the side of her father, who is being greeted by a throng of Samoan relatives. “My father was suddenly speaking with them in a language I never knew he spoke. I was in shock,” she remembers. Understand, it was a good kind of shock: “The way they opened up to us was so embracing, and life there was not cluttered. Things were direct, including relationships, and I liked that.”
The latest scene in Kneubuhl’s unique life is perhaps to be expected. It is 2008, and she is just back from New York City, where she traveled to be honored as an outstanding indigenous woman playwright and to be celebrated for a body of powerful work drawn from her dual Pacific island heritage: from her part-Hawaiian mother and part-Samoan father. Kneubuhl has written more than a dozen stage dramas now; she has also penned film biographies, children’s plays, even narratives for modern dance performances. Whatever the format, her writings shine with her fervent curiosity, both about the specifics of Oceania’s past and the broader essence of human nature. Her plays have toured the globe; in many instances they were the first theatrical works to serve notice of Pacific islanders’ complex struggles to withstand Western incursion. Still, her work’s appeal lies in its subtlety. Her plays are not polemics but rather explorations of motivation and the possibilities for redemption.
“I write about social issues because I am obsessed with justice, but I think we need more than the facts and figures,” she says, as bold and eloquent as one of her scripts as she relaxes on the lanai of her home in Maunalani Heights. “The imagination shouldn’t be denigrated. I love the world of story and the insights it can offer.”