On the Scene: Tammy Haili‘opua Baker
Tammy Haili‘opua Baker grew up on Kauai in a family where Hawaiian culture was lived more than taught.
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Tammy Haili‘opua Baker grew up on Kauai in a family where Hawaiian culture was lived more than taught. Her aunts took her with them to Hawaiian-language church services, she joined a halau hula, and she took advantage of an opportunity to take a Hawaiian-language class freshman year at Kapaa High School. But Baker didn’t give the issue of being Native Hawaiian much thought until she enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Immersed on arrival, Baker studied Hawaiian until she was fluent outside the classroom. She joined the UH faculty after earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1999.
In 2012, Baker was appointed director of the newly created Hawaiian Theatre program in UH-Manoa’s Department of Theatre and Dance. In 2015 she presented the program’s first Kennedy Theatre main-stage hana keaka (Hawaiian theater) production, “La‘ieikawai,” a modern retelling of a classic Hawaiian story about a beautiful but endangered princess.
Baker, 47, premieres her second main-stage hana keaka production, “‘Au‘a ‘la: Holding On,” Friday at Kennedy Theatre. The play continues through Oct. 6. For tickets, call 944-2697 or go to etickethawaii.com.
Question: “La‘ieikawai” was a story from ancient times. “‘Au‘a ‘la: Holding On” is about four Native Hawaiian students using 19th-century Hawaiian-language archives to research their heritage and learn more about Hawaiian history. How much of this play comes from personal experience?
Answer: It parallels my educational journey and the educational journey of a number of my peers. When we made the commitment to be Hawaiian-language speakers and to live as Hawaiian-language speakers we were able to unlock a lot of knowledge because we were able to access repositories of knowledge that were not previously available. Making that commitment opened up a pathway for all of us, and there’s a communion with the material where you feel one step closer to your kupuna.
Q: Hawaii has learned in recent years that a tremendous amount of information is contained in the Hawaiian- language newspaper archives. What’s the unknown history of Hawaiian-language theater in Hawaii?
A: There were 300-some productions that were done in the 1800s that were hana keaka. In the newspapers there were actual playbills of these productions. To me that was an amazing journey to be able to delve into those newspapers.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Next August we will be having a conference and festival at the University of Hawaii at Manoa which will bring amateur and professional theater companies and artists from other parts of the world together. I hope to bring our kanaka maoli actors and writers and designers and directors to interface with them about how we build hana keaka in Hawaii. There’s a need for us to retell our stories and to validate our history and contribute to the Hawaiian-language revitalization.
Q: Hawaiians bought into Western notions of body shame after the death of Kamehameha to the point where, at a re-creation of Kamehameha’s landing on Oahu 100 years ago, men dressed as traditional Hawaiian warriors wore long underwear under their malos. The malo has been restored to hula kahiko, but have any of your male actors at the UH been reluctant to wear a malo?
A: No, not at all. They’ve been very pro-malo. The kuleana (area of responsibility) we have when we’re telling these stories includes accountability and so we want to be as authentic as possible. That means in certain circumstances male actors have to wear a malo.
Reach John Berger at email@example.com.