A Walk to Remember
Story by Ronald Williams Jr.
Photos by Sammie Choy
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.”
In 2007 a hui (group) of Native Hawaiian organizations—Kamehameha Schools, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and the Queen Emma Foundation among others—came together under the name Hawai‘i Pono‘ï Coalition to redress these histories. Their goal was “to educate those who live in and visit the Islands about Hawai‘i’s true history.” While differences exist among these partners, they found common cause in the idea that knowledge of Hawai‘i’s history advances the interests of Native Hawaiians and, more broadly, everyone in the Islands.
But how to compellingly deliver that history to a mass audience? Coalition members recalled the vivid historical re-enactments that had been part of a 1993 centennial of the overthrow, an event that included nearly nineteen hours of scripted performances and saw more than ten thousand people march through the streets of Honolulu. In September 2007 the Hawai‘i Pono‘i Coalition launched its first living-history performance, Onipa‘a (Steadfast): A Birthday Celebration for Queen Lili‘uokalani, on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace. Billed as “A Day of Learning and Recapturing the History of Hawai‘i,” the event drew large crowds. Attendees eagerly participated, often sharing deeply personal stories. The coalition knew they had tapped into something, so they asked local playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, who had written the scripts for both the 1993 centennial and Onipa‘a, to create a new, more personal telling of the story of the overthrow.
Reconstructing history around events that are still laden with emotional resonance was fraught with problems, but Choy saw that tension as a virtue. “What makes these events live is that Vicky has included the challenges,” she says. “We go to watch these crisis moments, moments that are full of choices, challenges, obstacles.” Kneubuhl knew it was vital to speak to the audience directly and individually, to make the history feel personal. “I wanted to develop tighter, more intimate vignettes that small groups could experience up close,” she says. “The key was to take these huge, dramatic events and make them digestible, accessible.”
To create these vignettes, Kneubuhl pored over government documents, court transcripts, personal correspondence and journals from the period. For Kneubuhl, who is part Hawaiian, Mai Poina is the story of a stolen past. “I feel like it is a history that was taken away from me,” she says, “and I feel strongly about reclaiming it, not only for myself, but for all of Hawai‘i.” Narratives written by the men behind the overthrow depicted the native populace as incompetent and docile, led by a weak female monarch. Kneubuhl’s vignettes tear those characterizations apart, recasting Lili‘uokalani as a strong and courageous queen with a full understanding of international law, and an indigenous people who organized and fought for their nation—all of which is evidenced by anti-annexation petitions delivered to Washington, DC, signed by the vast majority of Native Hawaiians.
The performances are personal also for the actors, who research their roles with the diligence of history scholars. Fujii-Babb read Hawai‘i’s Story by Hawai‘i’s Queen, Lili‘uokalani’s autobiography, “again and again,” she says, “immmersing myself in her childhood, her courtship, her marriage, her recent widowhood before her ascent to the throne.” Like the queen, Fujii-Babb was also widowed, which depeened her sense of Lili‘uokalani as a person. “We bring much of our own life and emotions to these roles,” says Fujii-Babb, “and hope we give the parts grace, depth and truth.”
Ardi Vesnefski of Kaimuki heard about the performances through her work as an administrative assitant at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Manoa. “I’m Hawaiian, but we didn’t grow up with this history. We didn’t know these things. To see that, to stand there and listen, I could feel my history. I could feel their anxiety. So much makes sense for me now. It hit home.” She returned for a second performance, this time bringing along her grandson.
The performances aim to make the history relevant to a diverse audience that extends beyond Native Hawaiians and to illustrate the impact these events had on everyone living in the Islands, both at the time and since. Craig Howes, director of the Center for Biographical Research, plays the part of Alexis, a Greek merchant who speaks about the financial motivations behind the overthrow. “One of the questions the play answers is, What did these events mean for the Chinese businessman who was a citizen of the Hawaiian Kingdom? The Japanese plantation worker?” says Howes. Kneubuhl offers answers with vignettes like the one including actor William Ha‘o as Ah Sing, a Chinese merchant who rails against the disenfranchisement of Asians after the Bayonet Constitution of 1887.
Following on the success of Mai Poina, the Hawai‘i Pono‘i Coalition has created two new performances, also written by Kneubuhl. The Trial of the Queen is set during the period of martial law that followed a failed attempt to reinstate Lili‘uokalani in 1895; it re-enacts the military tribunal in which she was convicted of “misprision of treason”— knowing of a treasonous plot and not informing the government—and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The Annexation Debates brings to life the arguments that raged during 1898 in regard to annexing the Islands to the United States. That performance is held in the Judiciary History Center in Ali‘iölani Hale—the very room in which similar debates took place more than a century ago.
At 6:30 a.m. on the morning of March 17, 1893, the Hawaiian National Band gathered at Queen Emma Square in downtown Honolulu. Once assembled, they marched in procession the short distance to Washington Place, the personal residence of Queen Lili‘uokalani. There they serenaded the deposed queen with songs that included “The Lili‘uokalani March,” “Hawai‘i Pono‘ï” (“Hawai‘i’s Own True Sons”) and a public favorite, “Mai Poina Oe Ia‘u” (“Don’t Forget Me”). Two years later, while imprisoned in a room of ‘Iolani Palace, the queen would repeat that phrase in a message to the friends and loved ones who visited her. As they parted, Lili‘uokalani passed them a small yellow ribbon emblazoned with the words, “MAI POINA OE IA‘U.”