At the turn of the 18th century, a Hawaiian boy on the island of Hawai‘i was orphaned by kanaka warriors embroiled in a power struggle. They killed his parents and infant brother, but spared him. At 10 years old, he wasn’t a threat. Later, after studying under his uncle, a priest, he took to the seas. Though he never returned to his ancestral homeland, his legacy lives on in the islands today.
Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia became a complex figure in Hawaiian history, both hailed and decried for being the first Hawaiian Christian. His travels left him in New Haven, Connecticut, where he ended up under the wing and in the home of the president of Yale, who taught him theology and secular subjects. He developed a deep desire to proselytize in his native land, which inspired the creation of the Foreign Mission School, whose purpose was to bring the Christian word to far-flung lands. Before dying of typhus at age 26, ʻŌpūkahaʻia began the first ever attempts at penning ‘olelo Hawai‘i and inspired the Sandwich Island Mission, which had profound effects on Hawai‘i.
200 years later, Moses Goods brings this story to the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on March 15 in a one-man play he wrote and will perform in. Along with Po‘ai Lincoln, who will open the play with a discussion about music, Goods will tell the story of this significant, complex Hawaiian figure in “My Name is ʻŌpūkahaʻia.” After the show, the performers will stay for an informal talk-story session with audience members.
Goods, who is from Maui and based in Honolulu, is the founder and artistic director of ‘Inamona Theatre Company, an organization dedicated to reintroducing the native stories of Hawai‘i to the community.
Part of Goods’ artistic mission is telling Hawaiian stories from a Hawaiian perspective. In this new play, he will play several roles to tell ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s story, which is not traditionally how this story has been told. In ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s official memoirs, penned by his New Haven colleagues, he is called “Obookiah,” with his journey portrayed as that of a “heathen,” idol-worshipping youth converted to a learned, Western man – a narrative, when read through a modern lens, with racist and xenophobic tones. But a vital layer to the story is that ʻŌpūkahaʻia is revered by many Hawaiian Christians. His remains have been re-interred at Kahikolu Church in Kona, and the third Sunday in February is a day of remembrance to honor this significant historical figure.
It’s an important story to tell, and I got the chance to speak with Goods to hear his mana‘o about the power of theater to tell complex stories, his shy boyhood in Ha‘iku giving rise to his range as an actor, and his advice to aspiring playwrights and actors.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your creative roots.
I’m from Upcountry Maui; I’m from Ha‘iku originally. I’m a graduate of Maui High School. I did a little bit of drama at Maui High and took up theater again at the University of Hawai‘i. That was years ago. I’ve been a theater artist for almost two decades now. I focus most of my work on stories having to do with our history, our culture in Hawai‘i, or our ancestors or the historical figures in Hawai‘i.
What inspired that direction for you?
For me, theater had been my way of connecting culturally. It’s my way of connecting with the story, with the history. I learn from what I do as a theater artist; that’s the way for me to connect with our stories, and then I’m able to get the stories out there to a larger audience.
Are there a lot of Native Hawaiians in theater?
There haven’t been over the years, but recently there’s been an emergence of Native Hawaiian artists. There’s a lot of theater starting that’s happening completely in the Hawaiian language, which is a very exciting thing. Theater is not a traditional Hawaiian art form, but more and more people are starting to embrace theater and acting.
You have a whole foundation dedicated to theater in the arts. Can you tell me a little bit about ‘Inamona?
‘Inamona is a theater company that is still kind of getting off the ground, and we’re about to do some things to move that forward. It’s dedicated to reintroducing the stories of Hawai‘i to the people of Hawai‘i. It’s a way of digging up stories that people don’t necessarily hear and a way of connecting the generations of today with the stories of our past.
Your last one-man play was about Duke Kahanamoku. What inspired this new play?
In what I do, I kind of gravitate to the figures that had a huge impact on our islands, and I think Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia was one of the firsts in bridging the connection between Hawai‘i and the outside world. He was credited with bringing Christianity to Hawai‘i. I think what drew me to him was the fact that it’s an important story to tell from a Hawaiian perspective. To many Hawaiians, he’s a great hero, right? Because he represents Christianity and many Hawaiians are Christian. But to other Hawaiians, it kind of symbolizes that huge, drastic change that took place in our culture when this new religion was introduced and we, for a lack of a better term, lost who we are as a people spiritually because of this move toward Christianity. So it’s a difficult story to tell. And I think to me, I guess it’s kind of appealing because it is challenging. The challenge for me is to tell all sides of the story and not necessarily lean toward any one direction, anyone’s side, but really show who he is as a human. That’s where I came from.
What should people expect at the show itself?
The show is going to be in two parts; my piece is the second half, so it’s only about 25 minutes or so. But the segment before that is going to be by another performer, Po‘ai Lincoln. She’s going to set the scene, in a way, by talking about music in Hawai‘i – the early forms of what music is in Hawai‘i – specifically the impact that Christianity had on the music of Hawai‘i, because that is directly connected to the story of Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia. And then I’ll come in with my story, with my play, at the end of it.
A one-man play. What’s that like?
I guess I have become so used to doing one-man shows that it’s kind of my thing now, but there are challenges in one-man shows in that there’s no one else out there but me, so I can’t rely on anyone to give me the energy I need, or to bail me out if I make a mistake. So it’s all dependent on what I do as a performer. One thing that I tend to do with my one-man shows is that I include a lot of different characters. And so I’ll be playing several different characters in this show. I like doing that because it allows me to tell different perspectives of the same story, but you’re not just telling it from the point of view of the main character. There are other characters that come in and out. That’s kind of a strength of mine as an actor, is to go in and out of character.
Where do you get such range as an actor?
Oh, good question. Probably just a lifetime of being an introverted kid that was always keeping to himself but always looking, and watching, and people watching. That’s what I was doing as that shy kid growing up. I guess I was just observing people around me and then recording that into my brain. That’s only thing I can think of that could explain how I’m able to go in and out of these different characters. That and it’s a lot of fun, too. I think a lot of people toy around with different voices that they use. For me, it’s an opportunity to delve in and become a different character.
If there are aspiring playwrights or performers, especially of Native Hawaiian ancestry, what advice would you have for them?
My advice would be to reach out to those that you know are doing the work and make a connection with them. There’s a lot that we could offer in terms of choices that we’ve made, good and bad, that can help a young artist as they find their way through their own journey. Every journey’s going to be unique, but it’s helpful to reach out to people that can offer a little bit of guidance. Don’t be shy, just reach out to these people, whether Facebook, email, whatever – make that connection. Creating a community of young Native Hawaiian artists is a really important thing, and there’s no reason why we need to be completely separate in what we do. We can certainly connect with each other.
You talked about good and bad choices. What are some good and bad choices you’ve made as an artist?
That’s hard to answer because some of some of the good choices are bad choices at the same time. I tend to just go for it, to just make things happen, which is a good and a bad thing. You dive right in and realize that maybe it was too soon, but at the same time you’re going to learn a lot from going out there and making it happen and learning from the mistakes. So yeah, one piece of advice is to just go for it.
So what’s next for you? What stories do you want to tell?
There are a number of stories I’d like to tell. I can’t give away too much of certain projects that I’m working on, but the next project I’m working on has to do with the monarchs of Hawai‘i in their younger days. So I’ll say that.
Do you think you’ll always focus on historical figures?
No, I don’t, but I think there’s so much there and I think that’s a huge part of my kuleana, my responsibility as a Native Hawaiian artist, to tell these stories, embrace these stories, learn from these stories. Share them with others. I think it’s always going to be a part of what I do. I don’t think it’s going to be the extent of what I do. As most people in Hawai‘i, I’m mixed. I’m half Hawaiian, I’m also half black. I haven’t started to look at that so much in my work, and that’s actually a direction that I’ve been wanting to go in for a while now. So I think work from me is going to include making a connection between who I am as a Hawaiian and who I am as a black person.
I feel like there is an untold story there. Do you think that artists always need to be personally connected to what they do? It seems like you have a lot of personal connection to the art you create.
That’s the art, right? It’s finding what is human in the characters. I’m definitely well connected to one human, and that’s myself. So I need to find these personal connections, find what makes these characters human and real people and not just characters from a book. They’re actually living, being people. So the personal connection is essential to the work that I do.
Do you have anything that you want Maui residents to know about you, or the show, or anything that you haven’t said that you want to express?
I want to let people know that I do the work that I do because I love this work, but also because it is my responsibility as a Native Hawaiian artist to reach people through these stories, and to be that conduit between the kupuna, our ancestors, and the people of today. So as much as I’d love people to come and support me as an artist, and I love it when I come to Maui because I get wonderful support, I want to make it clear that what I’m doing is to serve the community, to serve our ancestors, to continue to make sure those connections are being made between the generation of today and the ancestors that I’m portraying on stage.
Photos courtesy Moses Goods
Cover design by darris hurst