Across the Universe
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.”
When Kneubuhl was in New York City for the recent tribute, she was, she laughs, “obnoxious” in the number of times she pointed out that she was born in the same hospital as Barack Obamaand attended the same high school, too.
Underneath this self-effacing joke, however, is Kneubuhl’s true tie-in to the new president: the empowering sense of cool she has harvested from existing ideas of racial and ethnic identity. “I deal in my work with the identity of hapa,” she says, using the local slang for “bi-racial.” “People talk about the split, the confusion. I think, ‘What? It’s great [to be hapa], because I have access to twice as much as most people. I have genealogies in twice as many worlds and the comfort and ease of going back and forth.’” She gets a hearty laugh out of describing the adventurous existence of her paternal grandparents, who split their time living above a store next to the Pago Bar in Samoa and a tony residence on California’s Balboa Island.
The New York City tribute included a staged reading of one of Kneubuhl’s best-known works, The Conversion of Ka‘ahumanu, a play that exemplifies her distinctly dogma-free perspective and her desire to explore difference. Ka‘ahumanu was the Hawaiian ali‘i (monarch) who changed the course of history by turning away from native spiritual practices and accepting the Christianity of American missionaries. History has tended to paint her in broad strokes that render her either good or bad, but Kneubuhl believed in a
more nuanced picture. Her Ka‘ahumanuforged from extensive archival researchis a shrewd pragmatist who likely saw not salvation, but strategic advantage in Christianity. The play highlights the ruler’s ambivalence, rendering her a woman with aims that suggest a mixture of self-protection and forthright prudence. “When the play premiered, some people were upset that I didn’t make it more black and white,” says Kneubuhl; she defends the script by noting that religious matters are never black and white, but rather “full of contradictions.”
Another character in The Conversion testifies to Kneubuhl’s affinity for retelling familiar tales by refocusing on peripheral but real people. This is the character of Hannah, a young hapa woman who lived during Ka‘ahumanu’s time and who left behind an extensive journal filled with an impassioned account of her own struggle to choose between two spiritual paths, indigenous and introduced. “Women are the adaptive players who move events forward, and they need to be written back into history,” says Kneubuhl. “We don’t have to swallow all those authoritative histories that focus only on epic events initiated by men. Then you see that history is moved forward by real people, not just some detached names on the paper.”
That this approach has universal resonance was affirmed for Kneubuhl when The Conversion toured Scotland. “The play got a wonderful review from a man with a huge red beard,” she recalls. “He looked like he had just come down from the Highlands. He told me he was touched because he saw many parallels with the cultural loss that took place in Scottish history. I never thought I would be hearing that from a man in a kilt.”
Kneubuhl credits her family not just for colorful memories, but also for emboldening her to choose art over science as a way to protect culture. She first studied to be a psychologist and got a degree in the field. Butbuoyed by the example of her famous Samoan uncleshe enrolled in a play writing course at the University of Hawai‘i. The late John Kneubuhl was one of the first undergraduates allowed to take courses at the Yale School of Drama, and upon his return to Hawai‘i he was the first to write plays in pidgin Englishhe advocated for the effort by penning a manifesto on the need for theater to “give a voice to the voiceless.”
“But he was married and had three children, and my grandfather didn’t want to bankroll him forever,” remembers Kneubuhl. “So he left Hawai‘i for Hollywood. For twenty-something years, he wrote for every major TV network series: Rawhide, The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare. He was our big star.” Then one day he gave it all up, packed in the big house in Brentwood and returned to Samoa, where he became a respected advocate of bilingual education.
Just as Kneubuhl was embarking on a theater art degree and beginning to raise a family, she was swept up in a movement that would come to define much of her work: the Hawaiian Renaissance, a reawakening of efforts to preserve indigenous culture. The renaissance inspired artists not only to revive native voices, but to add their own contemporary touches. And Kneubuhl had quite a bit to add: Her time in Samoawhere the survival of the native population was never jeopardized to the extent that it was in Hawai‘i and where many customs are still practiced much as they were 1,000 years agogave her a dynamic sense of the vibrancy of Polynesian culture. In Kneubuhl’s view, both tradition and the clashes between traditions are forever shaping the present in a way that the dramatist can skillfully capture.
“Once time goes by, memory and imagination aren’t so far apart,” she muses. “It’s so interesting what we do recall. To me, remembering something great is like opening a box of jewels. I hope there is some kind of pattern and evolution that helps us become more complete human beings.”
In some of her plays, Kneubuhl evokes the past by bringing nineteenth-century and modern characters face to face onstage. She used this technique with great success in 1994 in Ola Na Iwi, a play that explores the archiving of native people’s remains by museums. When she sat down to pen the work, Kneubuhl was fired up by the ongoing testimony on the Native American Graves Repatriation Act. “I wanted to show audiences why there was such concern over this,” she says. She included many voices, including those of Victorian-era scientists and contemporary Native Hawaiians. “I didn’t try to cover up the conflict in the current community,” she notes. “As dramatists, that is our job: to take a look at the big picture.”
Kneubuhl last year published her first novel, a mystery. “I did it over a long period of time,” says the writer. “I started it because I wanted to try something new.” The novel, Murder Casts a Shadow, traces some of its intrigue all the way back to those weekly canasta conversations between her grandmother and Mabel. Occasionally Kneubuhl would hear the two discussing a theory about King Kalakaua’s untimely death in San Francisco: that he was poisoned. “I took it and I ran with it,” she says. Other upcoming projects include a sprawling Thorn Birds-like novel set in Samoa and a PBS biography of Joseph Nawahi, “an incredible Hawaiian in Puna in the nineteenth century: a member of the Legislature, a lawyer, a leader of the anti-annexation movement and a great role model.”
Kneubuhl muses further about Nawahi and his life and then smiles. “I love giving voice to people who aren’t here anymore,” she says. “I hope through my work people will understand that history is made by people like you and me.” HH