‘Au’a ‘Ia: Holding On, An ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i Premiere

Sep 27, 2019

Hawaiian language theater is one way to experience advances in historical and cultural knowledge about the past. It's a story that many local scholars have lived through.

ʻAuʻa ʻIa: Holding On premieres tonight and runs through next weekend at UH Mānoa Kennedy Theatre.

September 27, 28 & October 4, 5, 6, 2019
FRI/SAT at 7:30pm
SUN 10/6 at 2:00pm

Playwright Tammy Haili’opua Baker of Kaua‘i is the head of UH Mānoa’s Hawaiian Theatre Department. Baker also directs this play, ʻAuʻa ʻIa: Holding On, a Hawaiian language production that premieres tonight at UH Mānoa Kennedy Theatre. Baker says the play is basically about self-discovery. She says the pursuit of knowledge can take you places you never expected.

“I think many of us, when we enter the University, when we go for higher learning, there’s a path we inevitably travel. Along that path, all of these different knowledges get unlocked, by research, or by kupuna (elders) that you meet, or just by being in a particular place at the right time." 

"You get pulled in deeply," Baker continues, "And some things are sometimes orchestrated by our kupuna that you never thought you would be doing, but they put you on the path and guide you, give you the signs, and when you keep moving, you end up with something like ʻAuʻa ʻIa: Holding On!

Baker’s protagonists find themselves travelling through time, visiting key moments of transition in Hawaiian history. The characters experience events as told by Hawaiians living in that period, and what happens to the characters reflects the personal journey that happens to students, according to dramaturg Kaliko Baker. Baker says when students really dig into period newspapers, it is like dropping through a time portal.

“We start to envision the past through the lens of the words of the elders,” says Baker. “We’re able to go in and grab their words and see the world they were living in at the time. This play allows the audience to visualize that too through the characters.”

The four main characters are well cast, and appear to be fairly typical local students. They encounter 19th century ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i materials, and when they chant the words, a portal to the past is opened. 

Over half of the play takes place in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, with English language used as it would have been at the time. Those who do not speak Hawaiian will not have too much trouble discerning the general plot, though supertitles would certainly add substance and nuance  

The Kennedy Theatre stage is well used for this student production. The set consists of giant books, all of them pivotal in our unfolding understanding of history. Music is woven into the production, and lighting in the first half is particularly effective. There are moving ensemble moments, music rising out of drama, that lift the story out of pure struggle and into an awakening.

Haili’opua Baker says, “The characters are transported to moments in history when mana (spiritual energy) was shifted, or realigned, so there are different hulihia, or moments of turnover. Haumana (students) in the show experience that, and it allows them to interrogate the history and have a better understanding of what our mana is as kānaka maoli (Hawaiians). They begin to see what it means to be kānaka maoli in 2019.”