Kaluaikoolau was a leper, but he was not alone.

He led a small band of native Hawai’ians in resisting the militia that overthrew the monarchy. And after three assaults, the militia gave up.

The story of Kaluaikoolau, known as Ko’olau, is an important piece of Hawai’ian history. His fight against forces that sought to corral indigenous people in a leper colony symbolizes the indomitable spirit of the Hawai’ian people. It is so representative of a David and Goliath story that people don’t realize it actually is historical fact.

State of Hawaii archives

Mainlanders have a cursory understanding of the islands, usually containing soothing music, picturesque locales, and swaying hips. But stories of the islands’ history are rich and varied–the monarchy was engaged militarily with Russia, France, and Great Britain with the latter possessing the islands for five months; disease decimated the indigenous population after Cook’s arrival, the provisional and then US government suppressed the Hawai’ian language and culture. These struggles have not made their way into popular culture or knowledge. The forthcoming movie with Dwayne Johnson about King Kamehameha’s twenty-eight year battle to unify the islands is thought to be more action movie than something on the lines of 12 Years a Slave or Roots.

The Legend of Ko’olau has been brought to the stage, written by journalist-playwright Gary Kubota. It’s a 90 minute show performed by one person. I talked to Moronai Kanekoa, who holds an MFA in Acting from USC and will premiere the show on an exclusive one-night performance in Los Angeles at the David Henry Hwang theater.

As an actor, how does this foster your brand?

I enjoy conflicted characters torn between different things and forced to make a path through those. My Mom is German English, and my Dad is 100% Hawai’ian. I have those different cultures in my family, and it actually helped me with this role. The character is conflicted because he grew up Christian, went to Christian schools, but at the same time, is Hawai’ian. He’s torn between the Gods of nature and his kahuna and his minister and the United States government. It’s kind of the old ways [versus] the new ways. And I kind of had that growing up in my home. I’ve always identified more with the Hawai’ian because it’s my home, my life. But I do have that neurotic side from my Mom which actually helps.

Have you solo performed before?

Not like this. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. From the time I knew I was doing it to the first performance was four and a half weeks. I was memorizing sixty pages in four weeks.

The tough part about it is that it’s only one person. It’s much easier when you interact with people onstage, but when you’re by yourself, there’s no one to play off of but you. The director, Monty, lives in Hawai’i as well. I haven’t [performed the role] in five months. Once I have the words down and know the arc of the story, it becomes more real.

I don’t sing or dance on stage. I don’t play musical instruments. It’s just me on stage. If I drop the ball, no one else is going to pick it up except me.

photo by Alfred Darling


What does the project lend to the understanding of Hawai’i and its people?

You learn about Hawai’i and its culture. A lot of people don’t know what Hawai’ians look like. They don’t know the history of Hawai’i in general. I think Gary [Kubota] did a good job in incorporating the history of Hawai’i into this play, and I think that’s what makes it more appealing—to learn about a part of the United States that most people don’t really know about.

It also has gotten me closer in my heart to Hawai’i. This play has helped me to remember what’s really important.

Sometimes in LA it’s hard to feel solid. Going through what Kaluaikoolau went through, knowing that and acting it out brings me closer to Hawai’i, the history, the culture, and everything that is Hawai’i. It’s close to home—a Hawai’ian guy playing a Hawai’ian. There aren’t that many [native] Hawai’ian actors.

photo by Alfred Darling

Ko’olau takes on the militia. Do you identify with challenging the status quo and championing the under-privileged?

I always identified with underdogs, people who are outside of the norm. I just had a lot more compassion. I would say that in general that it is the type of people that I fight for.

Legend of Ko’olau will be presented at the David Henry Hwang Theater October 11, 2014.

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