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‘Lā‘ieikawai’: The largest Kennedy mainstage, and the first Hawaiian one

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For the first time in its 51 years, Kennedy Theatre’s mainstage will be filled with the sound of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, the native tongue of Hawai‘i.

“As an undergrad and a grad student, I did a number of [Hawaiian productions] in the lab theater, on the side,” associate professor and the play’s director Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker said. “So in some ways [Lā‘ieikawai] is kind of a homecoming. I’ve always wanted to do something on the mainstage.” 


“Lā‘ieikawai,” which opens Feb. 20, tells the story of a princess, Lā‘ieikawai, separated at birth from her twin sister Lā‘ielohelohe. A suitor, Kaua‘i chief ‘Aiwohikupua brings his five Maile sisters to help him win the hand of the princess. The chief fails in his quest, and leaves behind the sisters, who form a bond with Lā‘ieikawai.

“It’s [an] epic story, that pulls together historical events and more fantastic events ­– traveling between the realms and connecting with akua, or gods, who many of the people in the story are genealogically connected to,” Baker said. “There are these genealogies that are connected to people who walk this earth, with more amazing things as well. So there’s that kind of touch of the mystical in the sense.”

Baker has been in a theater troupe that regularly performs Hawaiian language theater for 20 years now. She said her senior thesis was a Hawaiian language production, which helped kick-start the Hawaiian theater movement.

Baker said she was constantly asked what story she would put on stage once it was confirmed that she could bring a Hawaiian language production to mainstage.

“I kind of waited for the story to present itself,” Baker said. “And you know the idea of koho ‘ia (to be chosen), like we don’t go out and seek something, the story that’s ready to be told reveals itself to us. And that’s kind of what happened with ‘Lā‘ieikawai.’ ... One day the book kind of came off the shelf at home, and I went ‘Oh, okay.’ And that was maybe two and a half years ago. And then the journey just kind of opened up, and I said, ‘Okay, maybe this is a story that wants to be told right now.’”


The production has the largest cast to date for Kennedy Theatre. Of the 60 who auditioned on Jan. 1, 40 made it in.

Baker said four kumu (teachers) and herself had a point system for the auditions. If the performer could do at least three of five skills – dancing, acting, Hawaiian speech, chanting or singing, they were let into the production. 

In order to prepare those who expressed early interest in auditioning, Baker held a Hawaiian theater class in the fall semester. Once chosen, the cast went into twice-a-week training from October to December. At the training, they would meet with kumu to work on a skill set.

The kumu are prominent members of the Hawaiian revitalization movement. Kumu Kalio Baker served as the dramaturge, tradition and language coach, Moana Nepia was the dance coach, Kumu R. Keawe Lopes Jr. was a hula coach and composed original chant and hula, and Kumu Snowbird Puananiopaoakalani Bento was a hula coach and composed original song, poetry and dance for the production. Associate directors Sami Akuna and Kevin Berg also assisted with the guidance of the cast and crew.

Many cast members feel that the acting was the most difficult part of preparing for the production, even if they are fluent in Hawaiian. 

“I think one of the more hard parts was not just acting, but acting with a purpose and the context of Hawaiian culture, because this play takes place in past and it’s not a modern time,” said Kaulupono Lu‘uwai, an international business, finance and Hawaiian-language student who plays Mailelauli‘i. “It’s not the same cultural context that we have today. So we have to keep that in mind while acting and making sure that our language is enunciated or pronounced properly and has the same meaning that it does in the story.”


"Lā‘ieikawai" includes hula (dance), mele (song/Hawaiian poetry), oli (chant), hula ki‘i (puppetry) and Hawaiian martial arts.

Award-winning hālau hula Ka Lā‘ōnohi mai o Hae‘ha‘ e and hālau hula Ka Pā Hula o Ka Lei Lehua will both be featured in a segment of the production.

Associate Director Kevin Berg said that a companion guide will be given to audience members so that those who do not speak Hawaiian can understand what is happening during the production.