It was a summer evening in 1988, at the little wooden community center nestled on the bay in Hana, Maui, and the Kumu Kahua Theatre production of Ka‘iulani: A Cantata for the Theatre was about to begin. The play chronicles the life of Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani, one of Hawai‘i’s most beloved figures, and underscores the losses Hawaiians felt at the time of the overthrow of their nation. Told in a fluid and contemporary style, it includes chant, hula, music and performers playing multiple roles. The bare-bones and ancient Hana stage was a less than ideal performance space, but every chair was filled well before the curtain rose. It was an auspicious night for the play: the first and perhaps only time it would be performed before an audience that was almost entirely Native Hawaiian.
I sat near the back of the room with Dennis Carroll, the director of the play; Carroll, like me, was also one of its four authors. We thought the performance went extremely well despite the difficult conditions, but when it ended there was only a prolonged silence—no clapping, nothing. I looked over at Carroll, sure that the same thoughts that were running through my mind were running through his: “Oh no, they didn’t get it. They hated it. It was too ambiguous, too avant-garde.” All of a sudden, the room erupted. I sincerely wish that everyone could experience what it’s like to be a playwright on a night like that: watching an entire audience leap to its feet, crying, clapping and shouting out appreciation.