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Alice Dunbar-Nelson's An Hawaiian Idyll as Hawaiian Imaginary

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 1-30 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0001

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In 1916, African American writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote and produced a play, An Hawaiian Idyll, to be performed by and for black children at Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware. Such educational settings were the principal site for black women writers to produce their dramatic works in this era. Although nothing in the play directly addresses an African American context, Dunbar-Nelson implicitly asked her youth audience to connect the oppression of Hawaiians by paternalistic missionaries to the history of enslaved Africans in America. Years before, the activist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois had linked African Americans and Hawaiians as kindred in oppression. Although the term "color line" is often used today to characterize black/white relations in the United States, Du Bois originally theorized the color line as something much broader, using the term to describe a pattern of international oppression linking Africans to the colored peoples of Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific. In an address to the American Negro Academy called "The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind" (1900), Du Bois specifically made the connection to Hawai´i:

The colored population of our land is, through the new imperial policy, about to be doubled by our ownership of Porto Rico [sic] and Hawaii, our protectorate of Cuba, and conquest of the Philippines....What is to be our attitude toward these new lands and toward the masses of dark men and women who inhabit them? Manifestly it must be an attitude of deepest sympathy and strongest alliance.

In his essay "The Future of the Negro Race in America" (1904), Du Bois used Hawai´i as an example of crimes committed in the name of civilizing Christianity:

You may dress this tale of Hawaii in the most gracious clothing you can command. You may emphasize the degradation of the nation, the guileless altruism of the Americans, and the present prosperity of the sugar-planters; and yet if there sits beyond the stars a God of Justice who metes out to men their reward for murder and theft and adultery, then the blood of this helpless people will rest on America and on its children's children.

Du Bois addresses readers whom he feels may be ignorant of the true story of Hawai´i's "helpless people." This article will examine another African American writer's treatment of Hawai´i, one aimed explicitly at an African American audience.

Dunbar-Nelson relied on the black/Hawaiian connection to make her case about the destructive cultural impact of white people on African Americans, through the surrogate victim of Hawai´i as presented in her play Hawaiian Idyll. Yet Dunbar-Nelson, like the colonizing forces she critiques, also uses Hawai´i for her own purposes, hiding the historical truth of its overthrow to create instead her own Hawaiian imaginary. The playwright does remove what Du Bois calls the "gracious clothing" from the tale by revealing the hypocrisy of the missionaries and the self-interest of the planters, but she dresses the story in a different finery of her own imagination. She gets rid of one fairy tale only to offer another in its place.

The production of Hawaiian Idyll at Howard High in Wilmington, Delaware, was significant enough to warrant mention in "The Horizon" section of The Crisis magazine in February 1917. According to the notice, An Hawaiian Idyll was an "operetta" presented at Howard in December 1916:

Mrs. Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote the words, the arrangement of the musical numbers was made by Miss Etta A. Roache, and the costumes were designed under the direction of Miss Agatha F. Jones, all teachers in the school. An Hawaiian orchestra of native instruments was directed by Dr. Conwell Banton.

The script for this piece was never published, but two documents of a three-act performance matching this description are located in the Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers at the University of Delaware. The production augmented the script with popular Hawaiian and Tin Pan Alley Hawaiian-themed tunes of the day, used as musical underscoring or to accompany representations of native Hawaiian ceremonies or dances. Considering its critique of the hypocrisy of Christian missionaries, the play was particularly daring in its...

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