THEATER: Play leaves museum echoing with Hawai’ian historic themes

Posted on July 15th, 2009 by americanindiannews in People

Washington—Elizabeth Ka’ahumanu, the queen regent of the Hawai’ian Islands two centuries ago, reigned again—if only on the stage—in a play produced recently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Photo by Katherine Fogden National Museum of the American Indian  Missionary Sybil Bingham, played by Charity Pomeroy, ministers to Hawai’ian Queen Ka'ahumanu (Melonie Leihua Stewart) in the museum’s recent production of “The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu.”

Photo by Katherine Fogden National Museum of the American Indian Missionary Sybil Bingham, played by Charity Pomeroy, ministers to Hawai’ian Queen Ka'ahumanu (Melonie Leihua Stewart) in the museum’s recent production of “The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu.”

“The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu,” by Native Hawai’ian playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, is the first play to be produced at the museum in Washington using exclusively local acting talent. It explores the powerful, controversial leader’s decision to destroy the male gods of the ruling classes, and later to convert to Christianity. More than 550 people attended the May 15-16 performances, including many from the Native Hawai’ian community in Washington, D.C., joining a discussion with the author afterward.

“I wanted to deconstruct this idea that Native peoples are children who need to be led around, that our chiefs didn’t have the intelligence to have informed choices for themselves,” Kneubuhl said. “When we look back at history we don’t realize how difficult it was.”

Kneubuhl, 60, came to the story of Ka’ahumanu (1768-1832) in the 1980s while working at the Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu. As a tour leader and role player in museum dramatizations, she was steeped in the history of Native Hawai’ian women and female missionaries at the time of first contact. Kneubuhl wrote the play in 1988, followed by several other dramas and books.

Courtesy of Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl  Playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl’s “The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu” in May became the first play to be mounted at the National Museum of the American Indian with a local cast and production.

Courtesy of Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl Playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl’s “The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu” in May became the first play to be mounted at the National Museum of the American Indian with a local cast and production.

“The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu,” with its all-woman cast and powerful soliloquies, remains her most popular play, having been staged in theaters and universities all over the world. Vincent Scott, a cultural arts program specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian, directed the recent version and documented it on the blog www.nmainativetheater.blogspot.com.

The play exposes collisions of culture, religion and politics, Scott explained. It accomplishes this via discussion among three Native Hawai’ian women and two women missionaries who are building relationships with each other.

“She gives voices to women, whether historical or in a historical context,” Scott said. “She gives them voices that you don’t normally hear in history because history is generally written by men.”

Ka’ahumanu, as a historic figure, is respected for her leadership by some Native Hawai’ians and reviled by others for her religious actions. Kneubuhl leaves open the question of whether Ka’ahumanu’s Christian conversion was really a political move aimed at gaining the status of a Christian nation to the invading Americans.

Melonie Leihua Stewart, who played Ka’ahumanu in the museum’s production, said the queen regent was making difficult decisions at a time when foreign diseases and internal strife left many Hawai’ians dead.

“This play has made me realize how the death of over half of her people in such a short period of time impacted her decision to convert,” Stewart said. “Although there were many other influences, this one particular fact struck me emotionally, and it helped me to provide a stronger delivery on stage.”

Kneubuhl, the playwright and author, said one consequence of Ka’ahumanu’s conversion was that missionaries taught reading and writing to Native Hawai’ians.

“The population became literate very quickly,” Kneubuhl said. “In the 19th century, we see all these Native Hawai’ian newspapers, which lots of elders contributed to. Because they wrote things down, they were preserving things like the Hawai’ian language.”

—Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

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