Performing arts and political acts

A students reflections on Hawai'i

Phoebe Siers

Society and culture | Pacific

7 May 2016

Phoebe Siers looks at how false representation is countered through contemporary arts in Hawai’i.

On the Pacific Islands Field School 2015 to Hawai’i, two things stood out to me. Firstly, that the way Hawai’i had been represented to me in the past was very different from the truth of Hawaiian history and culture. And secondly, that the arts were an integral part of communicating those truths.

The False Representation of Hawai’i

In 1959 Hawaii was made a state of the United States of America, but it was once a globally recognised sovereign kingdom. The indigenous monarchy was overthrown in 1893 by American businessmen backed by the power of the navy. The authority and legality of these events is still questioned, but voices of dissent are hard to find amidst the waves of dominant media portraying Hawai’i as a passive island paradise. Anna Keala Kelly writes that the lack of alternative narratives causes native Hawaiians to appear to desire assimilation. Before arriving at Field School, I thought of Hawai’i only as palm trees and surfing, but in reality there is a strong oral tradition, embodied in hula, theatre and poetry, that carried the Hawaiian Kingdom from ‘old’ to present day. As long as the arts exist, Hawaiian voices and their allies are not going to be silenced or limited.

Hula’s representation of Hawai’i

Hula is a dance of rhythmic movements to chants and percussion that literally embodies and preserves stories of a Hawaiian past. Students of hula are taught not just the physicality of the dance but must also learn the literal and poetic aspects of the songs and chants that go with them. With the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s, hula competitions blossomed in popularity and became a testing ground for new choreographic developments. Of course, as Amy Stillman writes, ‘implicit in the license to create original choreographies is knowing and understanding the items of repertoire should be maintained intact… adhering to poetic texts dedicated to gods or high ranking chiefs.’ While still embodying the stories of the past, Hula brings Hawai’i from old tradition to modern practice. It says, ‘We are still here.’

Theatre’s Representation of Hawai’i

Kumu Kahua Theatre in downtown Honolulu has supported the development of over 200 original plays about life in Hawaii, by Hawaiian playwrights, for a Hawaiian audience. We all perform our identity in the choices we make, what we say, how we respond, and the stage reflects those choices back into the collective memory; it creates culture. Therefore, if a community only sees a narrow representation performed, that is the only culture they will accept. Representation of native Hawaiians in theatrical arts is important because it gives visibility and validity to the experiences, hardships and dreams of native Hawaiian viewers. I went to see a show when I was there, and the Hawai’i I saw reflected back at me was not grass skirts and tiki bars but language revival, familial connections, and the struggle of dual identity. Theatre says, ‘We are here, and these issues are valid.’

Slam Poetry’s Representation of Hawai’i

Slam poetry is as performative as theatre and as embodied as hula, and currently enjoying a revival through organisations like Youth Speaks and Pacific Tongues, which aims to deconstruct dominant narratives in hopes of achieving a more inclusive, and active culture amongst young people. Integral to the vision of Pacific Tongues is that it would create a cross­cultural exchange of Pacific voices, harking back to Epeli Hau’ofa’s vision of a connected Pacific, ‘Theirs was a large world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled, unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers.’ Reconnecting young people across the Pacific 3 cuts down the idea that Hawai’i is small, powerless, or dominated by the United States. Rather, it’s young people are using poetry as a rallying cry for their pacific identity. They say, ‘We are here, and we are not alone.’

As Jonathan Osorio writes, ‘there is hope in what we have done to reclaim our heritage ­ finding our voice in our languages, stories, and songs, our perspectives in our arts and literature, our muscle and will in our own political advocacy.’ The power of the performing arts is to create spaces to perform and embody dissent, identity and tradition. Hula, Theatre and Poetry are all doing this in Hawai’i, and I was fortunate for the opportunity to witness it.

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