The year was 1934. The doctor told 18-year-old Olivia Robello and her mother not to worry. She was fine. There was nothing to worry about. Everything was OK.
And so it was, until an officer came to the Robello family home and took her away. Olivia had tested positive for leprosy.
She was held at Kalihi Hospital pending shipment to the territorial leprosy settlement at Kalaupapa, where she would be confined for life. Though engaged, she was separated from her fiancee and would not be allowed to marry him, or to continue on the path of the “uneventful life” she remembered in her own memoir years later.
Olivia Robello — later known as Olivia Robello Breitha — was confined at the hospital on Oahu for more than two years, and was shipped to Kalaupapa in 1937. She died there in 2006 at the age of 90.
>> Where: Manoa Valley Theatre
>> When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday; continues through Nov. 25
>> Cost: $40
>> Info: 988-6131, manoa valleytheatre.com
Breitha is one of more than 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa between 1866 and 1969. But for Hawaii-born playwright Lorenzo DeStefano, she’s not a number or a statistic. She’s family — a first cousin.
“I’d never write about my life or myself; I’ve always found other stories more interesting,” DeStefano said. “But through Olivia I became aware that there was something there in my own family that was worth exploring.”
“Shipment Day,” which DeStefano wrote and directed, depicts Olivia’s experiences from the time she was diagnosed with leprosy through the months and years leading up to her forced departure for Kalaupapa — when the sometimes rebellious teen was forced to come to terms with her confinement and condition. It opens Thursday at Manoa Valley Theatre.
While at the hospital, Olivia learned to fend for herself and became a survivor — one who sometimes pushed back against the officials who held her in their custody.
LEPROSY — now known as Hansen’s disease — has terrified people since ancient times. Until the 1870s, the cause and means of transmission were unknown, and there was no cure; meanwhile, the disease could be horribly disfiguring.
In ancient times lepers were driven from their communities and forced to live on their own as best they could. By the end of the Middle Ages it had become the custom in some parts of the world to confine lepers in isolated colonies, where they were provided with food and shelter.
That was how the Kingdom of Hawaii responded when leprosy was reported among immigrants from China and became known as ma‘i pake (“Chinese disease”).
The Board of Health chose the isolated peninsula of Kalaupapa on the north shore of Molokai as the site of a settlement where persons with leprosy would be confined for life. The earliest patients were left to fend for themselves. Conditions improved with the arrival of Father Damien and other outside caregivers in 1873, although commitment to Kalaupapa remained a life sentence for almost a century.
The bacterium that causes the disease was identified in 1873 by Dr. Gerhard Hansen, and leprosy became known as Hansen’s disease. Effective treatments did not become available until the 1940s.
Kalaupapa was closed as a place of forced confinement in 1969. Residents were no longer held there as prisoners, but many of those whose bodies showed the physical ravages of the disease chose to stay there — away from mainstream society where people might treat them as objects of curiosity, horror or pity.
In 1988 Olivia wrote a book about her life, “Olivia — My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa.”
DeStefano met her a year later, when she was 73 and he was 35.
The friendship that developed inspired him to write “Visitations” — a nonfiction memoir that has yet to be published — and “Shipment Day.”
“I wanted to find that balance between truth and dramatization,” DeStefano said.
“SHIPMENT DAY” includes some events that happened during Olivia’s imprisonment at Kalihi Hospital but which she chose not to mention in her 1988 memoir, including incidents where the teen slipped away from the hospital.
“I knew her and I loved her and I honored her story, but I also wanted to show her as an irascible tough character, not some angel,” DeStefano said. “She’d be the first to say that.”
Hawaii-born Ku‘ulei Shafee, who played Olivia in DeStefano’s previous one-act treatment of Olivia’s story, returned from Los Angeles to play Olivia at Manoa Valley Theatre.
Shafee also has a personal tie to the story; while still a child, she met Olivia.
DeStefano, who knew Shafee’s mother, suggested that 9-year-old Ku‘ulei would enjoy meeting his cousin during one of Olivia’s visits to Honolulu.
“I remember that she was kind because she really loved children, and then I remember her fingers and her toes and how they were curled in because of leprosy,” Shafee said. “My mom remembers her vividly, and she and my grandmother got along really well. When I read her book she became ever more familiar to me.”
DeStefano and Shafee visited Kalaupapa last month so that Shafee could see the places Olivia lived and visit her grave.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Shafee said of her first visit to the isolated penisula.
“I wanted to see where Olivia lived, walk in her footsteps for a little bit. Just trying to get a feel of her and the other patients to add to my experience in the performance. It was much more than I imagined it. Everyone remembers Olivia, everyone has remarks on how feisty and mouthy she was — scary — and yet she was a woman who was passionate and so full of love. They look back on her very fondly.
“You don’t get this opportunity to play someone who has such soul and depth, and who went through such challenging moments in her life — finding out she has leprosy and being ripped from her home,” Shafee added. “I’m honored to play one of the first of one of the most challenging times in her life. “
Looking at it all in broad terms, speaking as a playwright and dramatist rather than as a relative, DeStefano says some good came out of his cousin’s horrific experiences.
“Unfortunate as it was that Olivia got leprosy, if she hadn’t gotten it she wouldn’t have been the woman she became. She would have married, had a child, been one of the faceless masses, and lived and died. She wouldn’t have written a book, ‘cause what’s to write about?
“In a way, she paid back the disease through the misfortune of getting it; she made the best of it. She pushed hard back against the injustice she experienced, and as a result we have her record of what happened there. And now we have the play.”