Being that I was born and raised here, Hawaiiana was a big part of my education as a child and I have always loved the myths and legends of the islands. I hold a deep reverence for the Hawaiian culture, touched with sadness for a race of people struggling to keep their customs alive. Yet even through this struggle Hawaiians have maintained their legends and history.
But when I heard about `Ulalena—which runs five days a week at the Maui Theatre in Lahaina—I was skeptical. I thought it would be another tourist trap, drenched with cheesy routines that disregarded Hawai`i’s cultural depth. Though skeptical, I decided to go. I wasn’t prepared for the show’s power and significance.
The word `Ulalena is defined as a wind unique to Maui, as well as a red-yellow colored rain at twilight. This mystical element sets the basis for the beginning and end of the story. The viewer is guided through a journey of Hawaiian mythology, dance, chants and history. And from moment to moment, metaphors integrated with original music, choreography, acrobatics and visuals create a spectacular experience.
The story itself has a universal theme with hidden meanings. The Kumulipo, or the Hawaiian creation chant, signifies the endless cycles of life and lays the foundation of the show. The production begins with a man carrying the burial casket or ka`ai to an unknown destination. The taro, which is so important to all of Polynesia, dances with the first breath of life.
A beautiful Ocean imparts the way for the first ocean travelers navigating by the stars. In a magical forest a young ali`i, or king, has a vision of a lizard or mo`o. Trees come to life displaying their supernatural power, or mana and the kamapua`a, a pig demi-god, falls in love with Pele, the Volcano Goddess. In the Village, men pound poi while women beat kapa cloth.
In honor of Lono, the village celebrates an ancient festival, the Makahiki. Then a European explorer arrives and the people show him great respect, thinking Lono has arrived in human form. The clash of old and new ways mixed with an introduction of foreign elements results in the overthrow of the old kapu, or taboo, system. Conflict and confusion, along with disease, killed a huge portion of the indigenous population.
As this happens, immigrants come in to work on the island’s sugar cane fields, bringing more death. In response, Pele explodes into the audience. Then life begins again under the magnetic light of the Moon Goddess, Hina. The audience is finally invited to help manifest `Ulalena rain which blesses a new age of people facing the future.
If you have ever seen `Ulalena you know it can leave you thoughtful and elated. For me at least, it also left me with a feeling to learn more about who was behind the performance. With more than 30 professional performers and musicians, most of them from Hawai`i, I went backstage shortly before one of their recent shows to gain a better understanding of what made the show so special.
The show began to take shape in 1998 when Roy Tokujo, the managing partner of Lahaina Myth & Magic Theatre, imagined a production that would express the passion and beauty of Hawai`i’s past. Working together with ARRA-Montreal—a renowned Canadian company specializing in high concept productions—as well as noted Hawaiian historians, composers and entertainers, `Ulalena was born.
Kalapana Kollars, who seems serenely poised and plays the young ali`i, hasn’t been with the show that long. But he has an eloquent grasp of the story’s subtleties.
“`Ulalena is a chance for us to express our culture though dancing as well as chanting,” he told me backstage. “I want people to experience Hawai`i’s history, beauty of the music and chant as well as the legends in a crash course hour and 18 minutes. You can’t really get that anywhere else.”
Kawai`ola Sellars agreed, adding that it was important for people to appreciate Hawaiian culture. Later, Caro Walker, the show’s Production Manager, met me in the hallway and guided me through the dark and into dressing rooms. She led me to the ladies’ dressing room first. There, four women sat talking and applying make-up to their faces. They invited me in and I asked them what they wanted people to get from the show.
Makalani Franco Francis, a striking young woman who plays Pele, said she hoped people would understand that “The History of our people is a big part of our lifestyle. I would just hope that people would want to indulge themselves in learning more about our culture after seeing the show.”
Cora Yamagata, a Japanese woman sitting next to Makalani, plays a woman in the immigrant scene that performed Butoh, the Japanese dance technique imitating a corpse that’s standing upright. She explained how in studying the art form it brought her full circle back to her own roots. And that many times after the show, audience members who had worked in the sugar cane fields would come up to her relating their experiences and “how suffocated and overwhelmed they felt under the tall stalks of the sugar cane.”
Seated next to me was Ana Prada, who plays Mo’o and just happens to be an exceptional acrobat. She is originally from Colombia. “I am not Hawaiian, but I come from a place where the same thing happened to the people,” she said. “With us it was the Spanish. `Ulalena is a universal story.”
With barely 15 minutes until show time, I quickly thanked the ladies and followed Walker to another dressing room. There I met with two original cast members, Lynette Chun, who plays The Mother, and Cyndi Davis, a vocalist. They both exuded a calm, maternal feel and I found myself trying to slow down my delivery to match their demeanors.
“`Ulalena was a basis of life and love,” Davis said, while Chun spoke of the universal concept in the show. She wanted people to “take with them a sense of awareness of the richness of the Hawaiian heritage, so that we can continue to regenerate a sense and place in history and allow the future to take from the past.”
At this point it was time to get a male’s perspective, so I followed Walker to the other side of the theatre to visit some of the gentlemen players. Outside the men’s dressing room, Walker poked her head in and asked if the men were decent. “Never!” two or three responded.
Kipe Ebana, who plays Kamapua`a, then walked out. I asked him what he wanted people to get out of the show. “Some people don’t even know that Hawai`i has its own race or language,” he said. “So when they ask me I tell them, ‘If it intrigues you, find out more.’ I want people to get that Hawai`i has a culture and that it is alive.”
My last stop was the musicians. In `Ulalena, music is the first thing you hear and plays a critical role in the show. So Walker hurried me upstairs. There I found Anthony Natividad, the effusive nose flute player who was well versed in current Hawaiian issues. He’s been with the show since the beginning.
“When I heard about what `Ulalena was I made sure that the bamboo that I got for the flutes was from the region where the rain falls in Makawao,” he said.
We talked about his feeling that the show was a lot of hard work until I heard a conch blow from the theatre announcing the beginning of the show. The usher kindly escorted me to my seat where I looked around at the packed, mostly tourist audience who had no idea what they were in for.
As I settled into my seat, I thought back to a conversation I had with Andrea Torres, an original cast member who plays Hina. I had asked her what it was that made the performance so unique.
“There is a movement happening in Hawai`i and `Ulalena is a part of that movement,” she said. “We are all channeling the spirit of the show which is based on the mythology and history of the islands.”
The drums started to echo, reminding me that I was witnessing change in motion. There is a Hawaiian word, kaona, which translates as hidden or figurative meaning. I knew that it was most likely this kaona that the audience would consume. As I heard the waves crashing, signifying the birth of the islands, I started to remember Hawai`i’s resilience and knew that `Ulalena was a seed planted for Hawai`i’s future. MTW