The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 189-193
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Hawai'i Nei: Island Plays, by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8248-2539-X; xxviii + 227 pages, bibliography. Paper, US$19.00.
Distinguished playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl's newly published collection, Hawai'i Nei: Island Plays, comes during a time when the Hawaiian Renaissance is flourishing. The movement has engendered a sustained interest in Hawaiian culture and history. Kneubuhl's plays dramatize, in exciting and intriguing ways, some of the birthing pains inherent in the attempts of contemporary Hawaiians to find our place in this redefined world. The plays are a welcome means to celebrate our culture, arising as they do from our own backyards, relating our history, pondering our choices. This is unquestionably good drama as well, living up to the substantial burden of being designated a "distinctly Hawaiian theater."
We have spent the last few decades in Hawai'i building a new identity, which remains inexorably linked to the past. So, too, all three of the plays in Hawai'i Nei center on connections to things past: historical figures whose choices shaped Hawai'i's religious climate (The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu, which premiered in 1988); our obligations to kupuna (ancestors) to maintain both the land and cultural practices (Emmalehua, which premiered in 1986 and was revised and restaged in 1996); and reverence for the mana found in the bones of those who have gone before us(Ola Na Iwi, which premiered in 1994). The plays embody the very pulse and ideas that drive the Hawaiian Renaissance. They reflect a very Hawaiian way of thinking, with the past boldly maneuvering into the present, affecting the actions of Hawaiians today. Kneubuhl makes no apology for this, for she is Hawaiian, and she knows that for our people, this is how events, and those embroiled in them, will find their way.
In Hawai'i Nei, the past resonates with present concerns to make the issues contemporary and vital. Moreover, the themes of respect for the past, reverence for the wisdom of kupuna, and the need to preserve cultural fragments take on new depth and shape. This is because Kneubuhl writes from a woman's perspective, full of nuances about each character's nature, the importance of relationships, and the ability of women to have one foot in this world and the other in a sensual, spiritual, and emotional realm. Sometimes they battle that duality, but most often, the women at the core of each drama come to recognize how important it is to acknowledge influences beyond the temporal plane.We are asked to share their experience at a raw level, because these people—some royal, many quite ordinary—are trying to fulfill their daily lives even when faced with extraordinary influences.
Kneubuhl knows her history and can make the stale and overworked details breathe again with an alluring immediacy.Yet her plays are utterly contemporary in style, episodic, [End Page 189] breaking from western traditions of cause-and-effect narrative. The story is of utmost importance to Kneubuhl, yet it is woven in a nonlinear way that keeps the reader involved in exploring each strand, then delighting at the ways in which they eventually entwine into a colorful skein. Those strands are further heightened by the use of Hawaiian language and local Creole English (Pidgin) to replicate the sounds of people in today's Hawai'i. Those tongues, and the ritualistic use of oli (chant), add a lilting timbre to the overall sound of her dialogue.
Kneubuhl writes with passion and humor, turning the wry phrase at precisely the right moment. Her intelligence is not trumped-up by attempts to impress. It lies right below the surface, appearing when characters speak with a clarity that makes them accessible. Kneubuhl humanizes her characters by showing their foibles and struggles, so that our preconceptions about historical figures or clichés about modern Hawaiians are cast to the wind. These people are not predictable and never preachy, even when addressing the audience directly. Rather, their reflective moments afford a glimpse...