Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2022 Issue

Hawaiian Mission Houses Take Historical Reenactment to a New Level


Rainbow over the Makawao Cemetery- Elisha, Tau'a, and Ethel (left to right).

Theatrical performances at cemeteries make figures from the past come alive


The Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives (HMH) is one of Hawaii’s more interesting museums and special collections. The organization, established in 1820, focuses on the history of Protestant missionaries in the Hawaiian (aka Sandwich) Islands. It is known for its important buildings and diverse educational programs as well as its library, archives and special collections spanning the last 200 years.


One of HMH’s most popular offerings is the long running “Cemetery Pupu Theatre”, a series of dramatic monologues showcasing real historical characters played by actors who deliver scripted performances using original texts and letters to illuminate their place in Hawaii’s past. The program has been active on Oahu and the the Neighbor Islands; but like all things theatrical, the pandemic shuttered the performances.


But these performances have returned and by fortunate coincidence I was invited to its most recent incarnation held on Maui at the Makawao Cemetery, July 16 & 17 presented by HMH and Makawao Cemetery Association. This is the place where many of Maui missionary descendants are buried. It is a serene and beautiful location. To be perfectly candid I had never been to a show in a cemetery before and had no idea what to expect.


No worries. On a beautiful summer afternoon, in a large tent under puffy white clouds and intermittent rainbows local residents enjoyed three spot-on monologues, each about 20 minutes long.


There was Elisha Loomis, a mission printer. He was the only printer to accompany the first party of missionaries who landed in 1820, and soon set to work to bring literacy and scripture to the islands. Loomis was responsible for the first printing of the Hawaiian language in January 1822. Loomis was quick to note the huge interest shown by the native people in books and learning to read and write. Like all printers he had much to say on the difficulties of getting the press to work properly and to fix it as it aged.


Then came Tau’a, a native of Tahiti, who accompanied the missionaries to Hawaii and became a pastor and confidante to Hawaiian royalty. He was especially close to the chieftess Keopuolani of Maui, who made a deathbed conversion. The actor playing the minister was a spellbinder, as he described the scene of the queen calling for her pastor as she lay dying. All around her were her relatives, many of them advocates of the old ways, barring his path and threatening to do him harm. It was a scene of high drama.


Perhaps the most surprising of the three portrayals was Ethel Baldwin. This name was familiar to most of the audience as the matriarch of one of the island’s leading families. Plump and dressed all in floaty white she looked every bit a character from a Helen Hokinson cartoon. But surprise, it turned out this well-born society woman in linen and pearls was an ardent suffragette. Who knew she used her husband Henry “Harry” Alexander Baldwin, then a Territorial delegate to the US Congress, to drive her around distributing her leaflets urging passage of the 19th amendment? And who knew that Maui had the first women candidates for public office in Hawaii?


All of this, an enthusiastic audience and deviled eggs, shrimp cocktail, bacon wrapped dates and lemonade too made it a most enjoyable event .


According to Mike Smola, 41, HMH Curator of Public Programs, there’s quite a backstory to these performances: “Theater and re-enactments have been part of the field of interpretation for a long time. The Living History” movement within museums and the field of public history has been around since the mid-20th century. Places like Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, and Plimoth Patuxet Museums have captured the imagination of visitors for decades.


Hawaiian Mission Houses started our program based on a similar one that was done at Old World Wisconsin by our Executive Director Emeritus, Dr. Thomas A. Woods. Guests who attended our History and Cemetery Theatre programs have all commented on how accessible historical information becomes when presented in this format. The response with other museums and historical/cultural organizations is the same, making it the reason the programs exist – to teach, share, and promote historical knowledge and historical literacy.


It does take a while to put together a complete set of performances. Our award-winning signature program, Cemetery Pupu Theatre, which plays to sold out audiences takes seven months from beginning to end. Choosing themes and then identifying people from the time-period that contributed significantly within the theme is key. Then there is the in-depth research necessary to write a 7-to-9-page script that is taken from journals, newspapers, letters, and other archival material that is given to the scriptwriter. We go through several edits and revisions of the script. With the director, HMH holds an open call for auditioning and hiring actors. We also work with a costumer who specializes with creating period-based authentic outfits. It is a lot of work, but the educational outcomes and the appreciation of our audiences make it all worthwhile.


As far as costs go, I would recommend that anyone looking to do this kind of historical interpretation work with and find out how their local theater community operates, what their pay scale is, and how programming fits within how the local theater community operates. As Smola explained, “Each year, Hawaiian Mission Houses chooses a theme for the upcoming program. Themes could be related to the larger community, or a bicentennial, which is how this past year’s theme was chosen. From the theme, we look at people in history that impacted Hawaii and events. We also consider people that might not be recognized, or popular.


This is our way of honoring their work or contribution to the Hawaii we live in today. As the initial inspiration was Cemetery Pupu Theatre, we also take into consideration where the person is buried and if it is at a place we perform at such as Oahu Cemetery, Lahaina, or Makawao Cemetery. Basic research starts when the historical figure is identified. We always try to have diverse genders and ethnicities in each show. Our repertoire now includes over 50 significant people in Hawaii's history.


I do not write the scripts,” he said. “HMH hires a scriptwriter who shapes the primary sources in our own archives as well as other archival repositories around the world. It is really important to us and the scriptwriter that as much of the script as possible is taken from the actual words of the person being portrayed, as given in the primary document research.


I do choose the periods and portrayals to be done every year. Many different portrayals have gotten good responses because each one resonates differently with different audiences. That is why it is important to choose people who have varied perspectives on the same theme, because, in the end, the script tries to bring out that person’s point of view on the events of their lives.


Most often, I will provide the scriptwriter with a general direction or topics I’d like to see addressed in the script, but the writer has quite a bit of creative latitude in constructing the narrative. A good monologue must have some type of struggle or conflict present in it as well as an emotional component. It is also important to show the person as a whole person – we all have struggles, challenges, triumphs, and important moments in our lives and it is necessary to show those things in the portrayal as well. The editing and revision process can take up to three weeks per script.


We want audiences to empathize with each portrayal and emotions are a key component to that. You must help the audience feel what the person being portrayed was or might have been feeling. That is how you connect an audience to the presentation. We have been blessed to have had award winning script writers such as Victoria Kneubuhl, Lee Cataluna, Tammy Haili’opua Baker, and others, create incredible scripts.


Once portrayals have been developed and fine-tuned, they are added to the HMH list and made available to the community to make appearances in classrooms, conventions, or special parties. Our themes in the last several years have been organized around specific topics. For the Sake of the Public Health presented figures from history involved with medicine. Tales of the Sea surprised folks by presenting people involved with the Port of Honolulu. Footprints on Land looked at people who impacted and/or studied the environment of the islands.


We have worked with University of Hawai’i, Kamehameha Schools, as well as Hawaiian historians and scholars. If the person is Native Hawaiian, we depend on the work of Hawaiian scholars who can present the person from the Hawaiian context and perspective. We also use archive material that is written in Hawaiian.


As for the religious aspect, we introduce it where it is appropriate. It depends on what role faith played in that person’s life. You have to be as true as you can to the character being portrayed. We use many different archives and the holdings of several repositories in our research and not just the collections of the Hawaiian Mission Houses. Several times I have had to get scans from repositories like the Huntington Libraries, the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, and University of California at Berkeley.


Yes,” he said. “We certainly do recover our costs, otherwise it would be difficult to justify continuing the program. When we started, it was supported by generous grants like Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), Hawaii Council for Humanities, The Fred Baldwin Foundation, and others. Because of their support, our organization was able to work out the kinks to eventually being self-sustaining and profitable.


You definitely want to take into account paid staff time for research – it generally takes a minimum of 40 hours per portrayal for research. When you are hiring actors, directors, costumers, and scriptwriters, you want to make sure that you are able to work with them well and that it is clear what the end goal of the entire program is.


For actors, you want to make sure they have the talent and ability to do a long form monologue. It is a difficult kind of theater to do from an actor’s standpoint and not everyone can do it or do it well. Hire actors based on ability, not on how much they resemble the person being portrayed.


We also weigh additional factors such as how the person, scripts and performances might be worked into our education programs. We offer live, pre-recorded, or live streaming options to schools from kindergarten to high school, as well as college. Virtual versions and accompanying curricula can be purchased from HMH


Also, we have had quite a bit of success with getting history theater into schools, especially at the secondary or post-secondary school levels. We added Virtual Field Trips in the last two years, and now students from Maui, Hawaii Island, and even Japan have experienced our education programs, as well as those from across Oahu. We are hoping to reach the continental U.S. this year as well—our resources are excellent any time of the year and especially for Asia American/Pacific Islander Month in May.


Special Collections, Archives and Library

The historical reenactments are just one facet of HMH activities. The organization has a significant library and large archival holdings. Asked about some of his own favorites Smola pointed to the Ali’i Letters” digital exhibit.These are some of the first and earliest examples of writings in the 19th century. We have a treasured collection of the translation workbooks. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) missionaries, Hawaiian scholars, and Tahitian missionaries worked together to translate the Bible into Hawaiian from Hebrew and Greek. We currently have a group of Native Hawaiian scholars working on the Hawaii Evangelical collections. They are doing groundbreaking work with transcribing and meta within the Hawaiian context.”


No survey of HMH would be complete without the link to their holding of important newspapers and periodicals of the 19th and 20th century in digital form. These include The Friend, Panopolist, The Missionary Herald, The Polynesian, Hawaiian Journal of History, Thrum’s Annual and others publications.


Browse HMH’s site to find other aspects of their work, including historic buildings, audio files, educational programs, and much more.


Many thanks to: Camille Lyons, (President of the Makawao Cemetery Association); Wendy Rice Peterson (Vice President of the Makawao Cemetery Association and Secretary of the HMH Board of Trustees) and Lisa Chow (member of the HMH board’s executive team) for their help in preparing this article.


Reach RBH writer Susan Halas at wailukusue@gmail.com


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