Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Theater in the Ground

Story by Ron Williams Jr.. Photo by Marie Eriel Hobro.

Despite the proverb, dead men—and women—do tell tales. Little-known histories of Hawai‘i, of fortunes gained and squandered, of royalty befriended and betrayed and of Island dreams fulfilled and lost at sea, are now being retold—from
the graveyard.

In 2011 the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives (HMH) launched Cemetery Pupu Theater, a living history program that stages first-person performances of figures from Hawai‘i history at the person’s grave site. It’s the brainchild of Thomas Woods, former HMH executive director, who partnered with Hawai‘i’s oldest public burial site, O‘ahu Cemetery, the final resting place for many Honolulu notables since its founding in 1844.

Once subjects are chosen, HMH’s curator of public programming, Mike Smola, does a deep dive into archival research. Scripts are written and professional actors hired. Previous graveside portrayals have included Curtis Piehu Iaukea, a Native Hawaiian who traveled the globe in the late nineteenth century as a Hawaiian Kingdom diplomat; in 1883 Iaukea attended the coronation of Tsar Alexander III in Moscow. Another grave was that of Alexander Cartwright Jr., one of the founders of modern American baseball. In his home state of New York, he played for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. Later he served as Honolulu’s fire chief.

Smola admits that theater in an actual graveyard makes some uneasy, but “the point of the program is to take history out of the lecture hall,” he says. “Live performance can be an incredibly visceral tool, and when the person being portrayed is—in a way—‘there’ at the performance, it can be a powerful experience for the actor and the audience.” Many agree with Smola: Cemetery Pupu Theater performances sell out well in advance.

While the more than twenty-five thousand burials at O‘ahu Cemetery offer plenty of content, the popularity of the program has spurred the producers to expand to other Hawaiian Islands and beyond. Performances in Boston will focus on the history of these long-intertwined cities. An all-‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) script is in the works, and tales from Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese and other cultures that came to the Islands are also planned.