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Realization of revitalization: Kennedy furthers Hawaiian language revival

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Director Baker said that “Lā‘ieikawai” is one of the most well-known stories in Hawaiian culture.

Kennedy Theatre’s “Lā‘ieikawai” is more than a theater production for its cast and crew; it is a milestone for the revitalization of the Hawaiian language and culture on Oʻahu.

Ke‘alohi Reppun, who is seeking her Educational Doctorate in Professional Practice and plays the role of Maileha‘iwale, said that the language that “Lā‘ieikawai” is performed in matters to the culture, but so does the story as well.

“We’re trying to revive our language,” Reppun said. “We’re trying to bring back those mo`olelo (stories), we’re still trying to find new mo`olelo, but we’re trying to bring back those, that ike, that knowledge, that are sort of encapsulated in all of these different mo`olelo that live all over the place.”


The first step to revitalizing the language is practicing the language. 

“The ones who don’t speak Hawaiian, they’re getting to learn Hawaiian,” Reppun said. “The ones who are in classes have a context to use their language. Then for those who are a little more experienced, we have people who have the same interests and have things to speak about and give us another context to allow that language to live in first. So the stage becomes a really special place in that. Almost magical.”

Not all of the cast members entered the production with fluency in Hawaiian. Taylor Summer Purvis, a theatre and communications major who plays Mailepākaha, had taken up to Hawaiian 202 a couple of years ago, but hadn’t practiced the language since then. 

“I [could] understand a little bit and speak a little bit, but I really had so much help from my sisters, Ko’e, Makana, Kumu, like everybody,” Purvis said. “... it’s so humbling, and this is the first production I’ve ever been in, so it’s even more so humbling to do it in the Hawaiian language. It just makes me really appreciate everything going into this thing and all the help I’ve gotten." 

The cast was coached by both each other, and by the several kumu (teachers) that assisted in the play. Makana Kāne Kuahiwihui, a Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Studies major who plays Kahalapaomāpuana, said her favorite part of the production is the collaboration between the kumu and the cast.

“We have “ʻaʻole pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi,” which means “not all knowledge is achieved in one school,” Kuahiwihui said. “And it’s so apparent on this stage, because we have so many kumu and so many sources of knowledge that we can tap into. Hawaiian language can get very controversial, and Hawaiian studies can get controversial, however, the barriers are broken in this production because we have many perspectives and there’s no boundary. It’s limitless.”

Reppun said that simply learning the language isn’t enough, though, as cast members must recognize the significance of their lines and the production as a whole.

“This is not just, ‘you practice, then you go out and you perform,’” Reppun said. “This is stuff that you have to understand, have to really get in your head and you have to give life to before you have the kuleana, or the privilege, to stand on the stage and deliver that to other people.”


The significance of ancestry in the Hawaiian culture also plays a role in the motivations for the production, as well as the push for cultural revitalization.

“This is what I think is valuable, and this is our kuleana, because this is what our [ancestors] left for us, and so we owe it to them,” Reppun said. “And we owe it to ourselves to make sure that those stories are told.” 

Kuahiwihui’s connection to the production is closer than distance ancestry. Her parents were in the first Hawaiian language play at UH Manoa, put on by a club they had formed.

“So my parents and I were in ‘first-ever’ productions,” Kuahiwihui said. “And just to see over the years how [Hawaiian language theatre] became a class in the Hawaiian Studies, and then it became a class in the Hawaiian Language Department. We traveled everywhere just seeing the evolution and the forward momentum of the Hawaiian language. It’s amazing. To be in the presence of these collaborators, I’m super humbled.”

Kau‘i Kaina, an MFA Hawaiian Theatre student who plays Lā‘ieikawai, has two children whom she raised speaking Hawaiian. They recently told her that they would like to be in the next Hawaiian language theater production.

“... the kids will grab my script and they’ll start reading it to each other, and they’ll start acting it out,” Keani said. “What’s really at the heart of all of this, is, yes, we’re working to revive [the culture], we’re working to bring the stories back, and the question that keeps coming up to mind is ‘Why is that important?’ And just seeing my children and the little things that they’re picking up from the stories, wanting to be a part of it because it is something that’s theirs and something that will help them become who they are. That’s why we do it.”


Associate professor and director Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker said that the idea that “Hey, we’re here, here’s our stories, let’s stand proud and let’s rise up as a people.” will always be at the forefront of the production’s message, but she also hopes that moral lessons will be learned from the story itself.

Reppun said that the story reveals knowledge and wisdom to those who watch and take part in it.

“... it’s really a learning experience for those involved and then for the audience involved,” Reppun said. “... it’s not your regular, ‘children sit back and enjoy.’”

Baker said that this play is more than just a director role for her.

“I feel privileged to be able to do the things I’m doing now. It’s really an honor to be able to ... open that ala (path), which was opened for me by those who came before me, and for me to push that door a little bit open, and for me to pull in more haumana (students) into the department who have like interest and want to see our mo’olelo on stage. I have a lot of appreciation and gratitude for all that’s happening, and the people that are involved. It’s a blessing, it’s a true blessing.”