Issue 20.3: June/July 2017

Hawaii at the Fringe

It was an opera, sung by teenagers, in Hawaiian--and Scotland loved it
Story by David Thompson. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

With fifteen months of preparation, ten thousand miles of travel and a small fortune in fundraising behind them, the cast of Hā‘upu is about to take the stage in Scotland for the first time. They are Hawaiian high school students who have come to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest performing arts festival, to present their culture on the international stage in a way it hasn’t been seen before: in the form of a Hawaiian-language opera.

The man standing in the wings wearing a bow tie, a flattop haircut and a dour expression is Eric Stack, Hā‘upu’s director and the head of the theater program at the Hawai‘i Island campus of Kamehameha Schools, which the cast attends. In his preshow pep talk Stack told the students, “We’re giving our culture its voice in the world.” Nobody dared to say it, but gnawing at the back of their minds was an awful question: What if the world doesn’t give a rip?

Hā‘upu is a reinterpretation of the legend of Hina, the Hawaiian Helen of Troy. Kidnapped from her home in Hilo by the rogue chief Kapepe‘ekauila and brought to his mountain fastness at Hā‘upu, on the north shore of Moloka‘i, Hina becomes the object of an epic search-and-rescue operation by her sons, the dashing Niheu and the oddball Kana, deity of rope, vines and spiderwebs. Hina comes to appreciate the Moloka‘i people, who have rejected the rigid kapu system, with its practice of human sacrifice, under which the rest of Hawai‘i lives. And she falls in love with Kapepe‘ekauila.

A high-school theater group from Kamehameha Schools Hawai‘i performed the original Hawaiian-language opera Hā‘upu at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Above, Pomai Longakit, who plays Uli, talks to fans after a performance.

It’s a fast-paced production, filled with hula, chanting, pageantry, the supernatural, catchy musical hooks, complex choreography and chaotic battles that remind some of the Brits in the audience of rugby scrums. Apart from its operatic envelope, it’s a thoroughly Hawaiian production. It’s also a thoroughly challenging production for a non-Hawaiian audience: an enigmatic Polynesian myth filled with unfamiliar characters and symbolism, laden with plot twists and sung in a beautiful but unintelligible language.

As the audience is still taking its seats, the lights go down and nineteen cast members swarm the stage. They form a circle, hold hands and launch into two opening chants, invoking wisdom from above and from their ancestors. This is the Hawaiian cultural protocol; it’s not part of the opera. But it segues into the performance, which begins with a chant by the sorceress Uli, who explains (in Hawaiian, of course) the conflict between Hilo and Hā‘upu, and prophesizes the doom of the latter.

Act One is loaded with action and drama, yet when the actors look into the audience they can’t help but notice that not everyone seems to be paying attention. Eyes are gazing into laps. It appears that people are falling asleep. Maybe the world isn’t interested in something so Hawaiian after all.

The actors remain focused despite the heavy lids out there. They’ve been trained to control their emotions by controlling their breath and to give energy to each other so they will have something to give to the audience. The stage crackles with this shared energy. The eight chaperones—teachers, alumni serving as stage crew and the school nurse—know the show well and realize early on that this is shaping up to be the best performance of Hā‘upu yet. No matter all the chins to chests throughout the theater.

But the audience, it turns out, isn’t falling asleep. It’s trying to keep up. Those bobbing heads are not nodding off; they are reading the program, which lays out the story in detail, scene by scene. At the end of Act Three, after Kapepe‘ekauila and his people sing their song for the final time before they’re slaughtered and Uli’s prophecy is fulfilled, the audience gives a sustained standing ovation.

The actors make their curtain call then go backstage and begin packing up; the theater is tightly booked and they have just fifteen minutes to break down and clear out before the next show comes in. But the audience wants an encore. Instead, the house lights come up. The crowd lingers until the theater manager is forced to announce that it’s time to leave the building.

When the cast exits the theater, wearing raincoats over their costumes and carrying their props, they are surprised to find a good portion of the audience is waiting for them outside. Some are members of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club, fans of the Scottish author who spent time in and wrote lovingly of Hawai‘i. Others are from Trinity Preparatory School in Texas; they’re at the festival to perform their own play, a musical version of The Addams Family. “If my students were half as passionate onstage as your guys are, I’d be happy,” a teacher from Trinity tells Stack.

After a few minutes of kudos, questions and hugs, the Hā‘upu cast spontaneously arrange themselves into a semicircle and Makana Waikīkī, a senior who plays Nu‘akea, Hina’s Moloka‘i confidante, speaks. “Thank you for coming to our show and being so kind and loving and generous,” she says. Then the group sings “Oli Mahalo,” a.k.a. the gratitude chant, warming a gray street of the Scottish capital with the Polynesian melody. It’s a song the kids end up singing a lot during their two weeks in Britain, using it to thank everyone who does them a good turn. One crusty tour bus driver, unaccustomed to such recognition, was seen dabbing tears from his eyes after his “Oli Mahalo.” The audience outside the theater is also moved by the song. “Oh, I am definitely coming back to see this show again,” says a boy from Texas.

Billed as “the single biggest celebration of arts and culture on the planet,” the three-week-long Festival Fringe features more than three thousand shows with over fifty thousand performances. Above, Daylan-Blake Kala‘i (Kapepe‘ekauila), Makana Waikīkī (Nu‘akea), and Hansel Ka‘aumoana (Keolo‘ewa) during a street performance.

“Defying the norm since 1947” is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s tagline. That was the year eight British theater companies that had not been invited to the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival showed up anyway. They staged performances at the YMCA, in a church, in a movie theater and at similar venues “on the fringe” of the main event. As the gate-crashing continued in subsequent years, a new festival was born. With its open-to-all ethos, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe grew so popular it eclipsed the Edinburgh International Festival—and all other festivals of its kind in the world.

For three weeks every August, thousands of performers appear on hundreds of stages set up around the city. Well-known performers vie for attention with the little-known and the completely unknown in a picturesque city overflowing with theater, music, dance, comedy, circus, cabaret, children’s shows and just about anything else you can think of. Attendance now tops one million. At the 2016 Fringe there are 3,269 shows staged in 294 venues. Altogether there are 50,266 performances—including four stagings of Hā‘upu.

The Fringe has a reputation for the experimental and the unusual, but one of its most incongruous elements might very well be the hundreds of American high school students who descend upon it each year. They come as part of the American High School Theatre Festival, one of several side festivals held in conjunction with the Fringe. Participation in the AHSTF is by invitation only and requires nomination by two college theater professionals, something the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s performing arts department gladly provided for Hā‘upu.

The students stay together in dorms at the University of Edinburgh. They dine together, attend mixers and go to each other’s shows, guaranteeing that every performance has an audience. Hā‘upu is staged in a pop-up theater in a spacious hall at the Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons. There are no dressing rooms—not that the cast would have time to use them anyway—so all of Hā‘upu’s costuming and makeup is done at the dorm. A bus drops the actors a block from the venue and they walk the rest of the way in full ancient Hawaiian regalia, a procession of loin-cloths, feathered cloaks, ti leaf rain capes, wicker helmets, spears, stone maces and shark-tooth clubs.

Marching along the brick street, there’s Pomai Longakit, the easygoing senior who plays Uli, wearing old-woman makeup and a massive head of frizzed sorceress hair, grayed with baby powder. There’s Ku‘uhiapo Jeong, the junior playing Kana, the supernatural string being, in his high-crested ropey headpiece and coarsely netted rope cape (made by the school’s grounds-keeper, who is very good at knots). There’s Daylan-Blake Kala‘i, the senior playing Kapepe‘ekauila, who also played lead roles in Kamehameha’s productions of South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof. His costume and makeup for Hā‘upu, which includes a half-body checkerboard tattoo and a blind eye slashed in battle, takes two hours. “The tattoo takes forever, the eye scar takes forever and getting the white contact in takes forever,” he says.

Some of the cast have had to work harder than others to realize their characters. But for Hiwa Brown, the junior who plays Hina, it came easily. “Hina goes through a lot of emotions all the time and is constantly changing,” Hiwa says. “I’m like that too. I change in a snap. You can ask anybody. But because I’ve always felt so similar to Hina to begin with, it’s always been easy to switch into the character from myself.” She stands in contrast to Ku‘uhiapo, who has been known to take personal offense on behalf of his character if he perceives a slight to Kana.

Ku‘uhiapo is listening as Hiwa explains her backstory to a fan. “Hina was an ali‘i [aristocrat] from Hilo who was married to Hākalanileo, and her two main sons were Niheu and Kana,” she says. “Hina gave Kana up once he was born because he was born as a piece of rope. So she gave him to Uli, who is Hina’s mother.”

Eric Stack, a speech teacher and the head of the school’s theater program, wrote the libretto for and directed Hā‘upu.

Ku‘uhiapo interrupts: “Gave him to Uli? What are you talking about? You threw me in a cane field!” In the various versions of the legend, Kana is born as a rope or a piece of string, and Hina discards him in a cane field or sometimes a pigsty; he’s discovered by his grandmother Uli, who uses magic to animate him, then raises him as her own.

“Well, you end up with Uli,” Hiwa says. Ku‘uhiapo grumbles about abandonment, and Hiwa says, “You end up with Uli—isn’t that better?” “Yes,” he concedes, “that’s better.” “He’s touchy about his character,” Hiwa says.

Edinburgh covers roughly the same area as Hilo, but with half a million residents it has ten times the population. The Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare running through the medieval Old Town part of the city. It stretches from Edinburgh Castle, perched on a hill in the heart of the city, to Holyrood Palace, Queen Elizabeth’s residence in Scotland. The Royal Mile is the geographic heart of the Fringe, with several blocks closed to traffic and clamoring with crowds and street performers.

Hā‘upu is booked for twenty minutes on one of the Royal Mile’s outdoor stages to provide a taste of what the Hawaiians have to offer. Their slot falls between a Scottish folk/Hindustani classical music group and a “live action graphic novel,” with actors doing voices for comic book graphics projected on a screen behind them. At the stage the Hā‘upu players doff their coats, kick off their shoes and perform parts of two scenes. A crowd gathers as the Moloka‘i and Hilo warriors meet in a face-off that’s part Māori haka and part West Side Story, with some Power Ranger martial arts moves thrown in. But as quickly as the act ends, the onlookers begin dispersing; there are just too many other spectacles along the Royal Mile to see. The actors quickly regroup and perform Kapepe‘e-kauila’s joyous return to Moloka‘i with spoils from the raid on Hilo. A crowd re-assembles, but again thins rapidly as soon as the scene is complete. The chaperones and students trying to pass out fliers for the show find hardly any takers.

The original performance of Hā‘upu was staged for the school’s Hō‘ike, the annual all-student show. It was three hours long and included the entire student body as actors or in the chorus. The length of the traveling version was cut in half and the cast reduced to just nineteen actors.

It looks like Hā‘upu’s moment on the Royal Mile has passed. Then Pono Brown, who has the role of Hina’s indifferent husband, Hākalanileo, starts strumming his ‘ukulele. As a 2016 graduate of Kamehameha, he’s the only cast member who isn’t a student. But during his four years of high school, he appeared in every theatrical production there was, and graduation hasn’t stopped him from appearing in this one. A few of the boys begin singing along as he strums, and Ku‘uhiapo steps onstage and begins to dance a hula.

When Ku‘uhiapo is in Kana mode, he can tap into something deeply creepy, more like he’s channeling a supernatural force than acting. But when dancing hula, he’s a fifteen-year-old Hawaiian kid from Puna who has been practicing since he was four. He moves with precision and elegance, and he exudes joy. Some of the girls join in, dancing barefooted on the brick street. The passing throngs cannot resist and a crowd re-forms. The leafleters get back to work, passing out fliers and doling out kukui and plaited ribbon lei to anyone showing interest. For a few minutes the Royal Mile could be Kalākaua Avenue, and a tiny piece of Scotland becomes a genuinely Hawaiian place.

Kamehameha Schools is not the first Hawai‘i high school to participate in the AHSTF. Five students from Maryknoll School in Honolulu, in fact, are also performing at the 2016 Fringe. Still, the presentation of Hā‘upu at the Fringe is a first in many ways. It is the first Hawaiian-language production staged at the Fringe and the first authentic hula presentation seen there. It’s the first time Kamehameha has taken one of its Hō‘ike productions—the annual all-school theatrical performance—on the road. It’s the first time most of the students have been to Europe, and it’s the first time some of them have been off Hawai‘i Island.

Hundreds of high school students attend the Fringe each year as part of the American High School Theatre Festival, one of several side festivals held in conjunction with the Fringe.

Hā‘upu, however, isn’t Kamehameha’s first Hawaiian-language opera. The Hawai‘i Island campus’ drama department has been exploring the form since its 2012 Hō‘ike, when it slipped one opera scene into a Hawaiian-language play. Two full-length Hawaiian-language operas followed in the 2013 and 2014 Hō‘ike. Hā‘upu was first performed at the Hō‘ike in early 2016. The original version was three hours long and featured the entire student body, most of whom sang in the chorus. The cast of the traveling version was cut down to the bare bones, and the length was halved.

Herb Mahelona is the school’s choral director and the musical director for Hā‘upu. He wrote all three of Kamehameha’s operas, as well as five earlier operas for the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. His writing process involves spending time at the locations represented in the stories and simply listening. “I hear stuff on the wind, in the ocean—it’s crazy,” he says.

For Hā‘upu, Stack, who is from Moloka‘i, took Mahelona to the lookout on the cliffs high above Kalaupapa on the north shore, as close as they could get to the actual Hā‘upu, which is as inaccessible in real life as it is in legend. Mahelona came away with a sense that the past denizens of Hā‘upu were “deeply connected to nature, really joyful and uninhibited.” That feeling comes through in Kapepe‘ekauila’s bouncy, tribal theme song.

Mahelona is already thinking about the music for the next Hō‘ike, which will look at Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani, whose father was from Edinburgh and who visited the city in the 1890s. On this trip Mahelona goes to some of the places Ka‘iulani went to, and he listens. Edinburgh has personal meaning for him, as well; it’s the city his great-grandfather left behind to help manage a sugar plantation in Hawai‘i. “I’m having a lot of chicken-skin moments,” he says. “When I hear those bagpipes play, I don’t want to leave.” Even the damp gray weather speaks to him. The Scottish part of him doesn’t mind the cold at all. “The Hawaiian side has some issues, though,” he says.

Hā‘upu was the first of its kind at the festival in two ways. It was the first Hawaiian-language production ever staged at the Fringe and the first authentic hula presentation seen there.

Stack wears his dour face all week long. He’s got a lot to worry about. There’s so much that can go wrong. In addition to the usual disasters that can befall a theater production, there are any number of mis-adventures that might occur when injecting nineteen teenagers into a bustling, party-minded city half a world from home. While these aren’t the kind of kids to get into mischief—Stack calls them “the high-fliers”—some students from other schools are sent home early for breaking AHSTF rules. That alone is unnerving. Parents have entrusted their children to Stack’s care. Donors have contributed $200,000 to send them to Scotland. The administration is watching. Stack feels a tremendous responsibility to represent the school and the culture with honor. “One tiny little snafu will blemish that, and we don’t want that to happen,” he warns the cast.

But there are no major mishaps onstage or off. Stack’s high-fliers don’t let him down. At the cast meeting in the dorm after the final show, Stack’s face looks more at ease than it has all week. “We have come to the biggest performing arts festival in the world to put on something like this,” he says. “I feel we have accomplished some-thing big in our history—at least our school history, if not the culture’s. … You should feel some satisfaction that you’ve done this, that it’s in the books. Because it’s one of these things that you’re going to carry for the rest of your life.” HH