by Mike Smola
Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives has spent the last eight years developing a very successful History Theater program through our Oʻahu Cemetery Pupu Theatre program. These are first-person, scripted portrayals of actual historical figures from Hawaiian history. The last several years of the program, Hawaiian Mission Houses (HMH) has had sold-out performances and had to expand the program from two to three weekends. HMH has also begun to partner with museums, churches, and community groups to travel these portrayals to Maui, Kauai, and Hawaiʻi Island. From September 29 to October 23, 2019, “My Name is ʻŌpūkahaʻia,” with a companion Hawaiian cultural program performed by musician and vocalist Poʻai Lincoln, the Cultural Programs Coordinator at HMH, will be travelling to New England and Washington, D.C. to reconnect the historical ties between New England and Hawaiʻi through the story of ʻŌpūkahaʻia.
Theater and dramatic presentations coupled with other humanities fields such as anthropology, ethnography, music, literature, and history, can be a very powerful method of interpretation and education. HMH has certainly found this to be true through its own program. In the words of a theater reviewer in Honolulu, “It’s entertaining, educational without being didactic, and an engaging introduction to important figures in Hawaii’s history.” The key, HMH has found, is the inclusion of verbatim quotes from primary source research material rewoven by talented scriptwriters. As the HMH staff is fond of telling guests, “We don’t have to put words in these peoples’ mouths, because we have them through the use of letters, diaries, and newspaper stories– we use their own words.” This is something the HMH staff and the audience feel make the portrayals authentic and real in ways that a normal theater production might not.
ʻŌpūkahaʻia (later given the name Henry), was a Native Hawaiian born during King Kamehameha the Great’s wars of unification that would unify all of the islands into a single kingdom. His immediate family was killed during a rebellion against Kamehameha’s rule. ʻŌpūkahaʻia was taken captive but later given to his uncle. He left Hawaiʻi in 1807 aboard an American merchant ship. The journey took about two years to New Haven, Connecticut. In New Haven, ʻŌpūkahaʻia fell in with a group of Yale students connected to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston. ʻŌpūkahaʻia converted to Christianity and toured New England to gain support for the American Board’s efforts. ʻŌpūkahaʻia was a powerful public speaker, and his efforts led to the formation of the Sandwich Islands Mission. This mission set sail in October 1819 and arrived in Hawaiʻi in April 1820 with seven American couples, five children, and four Native Hawaiians who had attended the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. The changes in Hawaiian government, society, and culture over the next 70 years would largely come about due to the relationships between the Hawaiian royalty and these missionaries in the first 35 years of the Sandwich Islands Mission.
The history theater programs are always followed by a “talk back session” that involves the actors, theater director, and Hawaiian Mission Houses staff. This where the different fields in the humanities intersect and really come to life. This part of the program is also where the interesting discussions of history and the different aspects of theater are really considered and discussed with the guests in a relaxed and welcoming environment that promotes discussion about the program they’ve just experienced.
“My Name is ʻŌpūkahaʻia “will be touring the east coast to churches with historical connections to the missionaries and ʻŌpūkahaʻia, museums, living history sites such as ALHFAM members Old Sturbridge Village, the D.A.R. Museum, universities such as Yale and Williams College, and organizations such as the American Antiquarian Society and the Congregational Archives at 14 Beacon Street in Boston. There will also be discussion programs funded by MassHumanities featuring scholars from Massachusetts and Hawaiʻi to unpack the nuances and impacts of this one Hawaiian man’s journey that led to massive changes in his homeland. For a performance schedule and more information visit https://www.missionhouses.org/bicentennial-menu
Mike Smola is the Curator of Public Programs at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives and is the researcher for the History Theater programs. He has been an ALHFAM member since 2011 and served on the ALHFAM Board from 2016 to 2019.