Review from Scotland: Na Koa clash in the land of clans and kilts

  • Manono grieves over her dying husband, Kekuaokalani, on the battlefield. Courtesy photo

  • Kaahumanu gives counsel to Liholiho. (Courtesy photos)

Editor’s note: The following is a community review based on the performance by the Kamehameha Schools Hawaii Campus students, represented by a select group of 24 young performers, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland Aug. 5.

“Ua like keia kakahiaka me he mea la aia no i Hawaii. He pumehana ke ea, a e pa kolonahe mai ana no hoi ke kehau kakahiaka.”

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EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND — We really feel like we’re in Hawaii this morning. The air is warm, and a gentle breeze is blowing the morning mist our way.

These thoughts were expressed in a journal written by James W.L. McGuire, an attendant in the court of Queen Kapiolani, who accompanied her and the young Princess Liliuokalani on their visit to the United Kingdom for the Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria in 1887.

McGuire’s thoughts written nearly 150 years ago accurately reflect the gentle morning breeze that blew through Edinburgh, Scotland, on Saturday, Aug. 3. Just moments before the opera, we enjoyed a classic summer afternoon in sun-drenched Edinburgh, streets were heaving with fringe-theatre goers, not even remotely thinking about when the first snow flake of winter would fall from the sky. We did indeed feel like we were soaking up the rays of a Hawaiian summer’s day.

The Battle of Kuamoo is a Hawaiian-language opera in two acts, based on the last battle fought in Hawaii, resulting in the end of the ai kapu, the complex ancient system forbidding men and women from sitting together to eat. The work is a collaborative effort between music composer Herb Mahelona and Eric Stack, librettist and director.

The ability to craft the Hawaiian language and its cultural nuances into an opera performance and make it interesting to an audience in Scotland’s capital during the worlds largest arts festival is no small feat, and the audience was definitely not told a story from the Hawaii of postcards, aloha shirts and Waikiki.

Scenes were vividly choreographed and followed a fast pace. Among the more memorable moments, Liholiho/Kamehameha II, played by Jorden Kealoha-Yamanaka, travels by canoe surrounded by his confidants down the Kona coast to confer with the kuhina nui, or prime minister, Kaahumanu, played by Kalaninui Wilson.

A simultaneous hula iliili, a seated hula with smooth pebbles used like castanets performed by dancers dressed in blue and white reflecting the motion of waves, depict them leading the way for the canoe carrying the young king.

Kekuaokalani (Kyden DeSa), Manono (Kayla Enanoria), share their last tender moments of devotion before he sets off to lead the fateful battle in defense of ai kapu, which is immediately contrasted by the battle scene, a mêlée of armed warriors shouting, clashing, and pahu drums pounding.

A clever anachronistic twist to costume design (Layne Richards), portrayed a clash of worlds, people and cultures through the overlapping of early post-contact fashion over traditional Hawaiian clothing of the period, using ti leaf, lauhala, on the battlefield along with kapa skirts and a high-ranking alii’s finery on tattooed arms, backs and legs.

Musket-toting alii men wore three-cornered period hats and naval officer’s jackets over the traditional malo. The alii women, Kaahumanu and Keopuolani, played by Ewalea Dameg, wore satin ball gowns bedecked in lei hulu and niho palaoa necklaces as they flanked Liholiho in a scene of coercion/persuasion to defend ai noa (women and men eating together), regardless of the cost.

Manono’s cleverly crafted costume change onstage from traditional layers of kapa to battlefield gear, lauhala vest and belt, carried the tender message of love, devotion and brutal courage.

“I cannot shake the belief that the ways in which we tell the story of our reality shapes that reality,” said Eric Stack, director. “The manner of telling makes the world. And I worry that if we tell the story of the past as a tragedy we consign ourselves to a tragic future …as much as our past was shaped by the whims and violence of an evolving America, America, in turn, has been shaped by us.”

Eric’s words do resonate through the opera.

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of “no turning back” both in the frenzy of the battlefield as well as in the language of costume design.

Just minutes away from the stage of the “Battle, I stood in the National Museum of Scotland gazing at a brilliant red iiwi-covered ahuula one of two authentic ones given by Liholiho, Kamehameha II, to the Honourable Frederick Byng.

I reflected on the relevance of where this feather cloak stands, alone, removed from its original cultural context, in a museum halfway around the world with a very brief explanation of its history on the showcase window. I wondered whether it was the one that might have been worn by Liholiho on the day of the actual battle.

The site of the battle, now a wahi pana, a sacred place, remains protected. Many cultural experts feel there is still wisdom to be passed on from the scene of violence and bloodshed, like hooponopono, a method of reconciliation. Vast fields of aa rock under the heat of a punishing sun might one day tell the story.

“Malama ko aloha ” — “keep your love” — a resonant plea to both sides that no matter what obstacles come to Hawaii, keep your love of one another. These were the last words said to have been uttered by Chiefess Manono. Along with warriors from both sides, the remains of Kekuaokalani and Manono rest somewhere on Kuamoo, perhaps under a mound of rocks.

Following this tragic conclusion, one can’t help but ponder over the question: Was the kapu system truly abolished following the Battle of Kuamoo, or was an oiwi kapu system exchanged for a very complex, unfamiliar one from the shores of an unknown land and an unknown people?

To Eric, Herb, Na Koa, and all those who contributed their support to this powerful production, you transported us to the battlefield halfway around the world and two centuries ago. Laughter and tears were shed by the audience throughout both standing ovations. He lanakila kupaianaha! Mahalo piha no!

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An amazing success, a big thank you!

Vanessa Lee-Miller is a freelance journalist and frequently writes theatre reviews for Hitting the Stage, a Honolulu-based theatre review website.

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