Journalist and playwright Gary T. Kubota brings his new play Legend Of Ko’olau for a one-night performance at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Los Angeles. Based on a true story, the project concerns a Hawai’ian cowboy who took a stand against the militia that overthrew the monarchy and sought to enforce leprosy laws which would send thousands to a leper settlement– including Ko’olau and his son. Against insurmountable odds, a Ko’olau-led revolt held off three assaults until the militia finally gave up.
A one-man show, Legend of Ko’olau will be performed by actor Moronai Kanekoa.
Kubota talked about the project and how he approached this important piece of Hawai’ian history.
When you choose something from history, how do you draw out aspects of the protagonist when you have just the facts of what he did but not who he was?
I look for the motivation behind the character’s action and try to understand the action in the context of history and personal relationships; once you understand the background and motivation, then you know what makes sense in terms of action and dialogue. My own archival research found a Ko’olau, perhaps his father, who was awarded land during the reign of Queen Ka’ahumanu. Ka’ahumanu was a “feminist” before the word was invented who broke the kapu system that limited women’s rights and she also supported Christianity. The character Kaluaiko’olau was educated until 17 at the mission school in Waimea, so he spoke English and Hawaiian and he became a foreman of Hawaiian cowboys, this during a time of rapid change when immigrants were being brought into Hawaii to work for sugarcane plantations. He was a man trying to negotiate his way through the western and native worlds, this at a time when his Polynesian race was facing decimation from foreign diseases.
What were elements that drew you to the story?
It’s a great love story – a man’s love for his wife and son against forces that would tear them apart. Here was a man who decided to resist policies that would have forced his son and him to the desolate peninsula of Kalaupapa on Molokai Island, then a prison for Hansen’s Disease patients that Hawaiians called “The Living Grave.” He took on the military forces that had overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy a few months earlier.
How did you decide to make it a solo piece?
It wasn’t a conscious decision in the beginning. The play has a multitude of characters, dialogue, historical photographs, and sounds of the historical period. I tried writing it as a solo piece to get to the essence of the character Kaluaiko’olau. It worked very well, and there were literary friends who thought it worked well too and helped to persuade the Maui Arts & Cultural Center and Waimea Historic Theatre to support a grant development proposal. On the strength of the script, the National Performance Network of New Orleans selected my play as a Creation Fund project in 2013.
What elements of the story are relevant to today?
It’s easy to trample on the human rights of the weakest groups in a society, especially marginalized groups who are sick. We lost nearly a whole generation of brilliant, creative minds in the gay community in the 1980s because our society was unwilling to gather the resources necessary to find cures for the AIDS epidemic. How many of the homeless today are Iran-Iraq-Afghanistan veterans. We need to be motivated to act less out of fear and petty greed and more with compassion, respect and hope.
There are many stories of Hawai’i that aren’t pretty and picturesque but people have a framework that they’re used to. How do you expand people’s minds without veering too far from the comfort zone? And how does the project fall into that?
I don’t write poems, songs, or plays so they fit into categories. I write to take people on journeys. That said – the play resonates with people who appreciate a good historic drama. It just happens to be a heroic western tale that takes place in Hawaii. Oh, and this Hawaiian story is told by a native Hawaiian character. LOL. Audiences have laughed and cried during performances, and they come from different regions, from New York, San Francisco, Oklahoma, Oregon, Colorado and Hawaii – women in evening gowns, muumuu, men in Armani’s, in western clothes with cowboy hats, surfer dudes in jeans and t-shirt, slam poet friends. You know the play is succeeding when you it attracts a broad audience.