Koho ‘ia — The Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker Interview
|October 23, 2012||Posted by Troy M Apostol under Interviews|
Troy M. Apostol is Director for Hitting The Stage. He is a frequent contributor to Hawai‘i’s theatre scene, mainly in acting and directing.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with new UHM Dept. of Theatre and Dance Hawaiian Theatre professor, Kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker (“kumu” is “teacher” for the uninitiated). Growing up in Hawai‘i, I learned a great appreciation and respect for the indigenous culture and so was pleased to hear the department had hired a professor to specifically cultivate and develop a new specialization in Hawaiian cultural theatre. Talking story with Tammy—an accomplished playwright—was good fun and educational.
Aloha, Tammy! Let’s start off with the basics: Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
THB: I was born in Ko‘olau Poko, O‘ahu. Which is Castle Hospital. Ko‘olau Poko is the district. My family moved to Kaua‘i when I was 6 months old, so I didn’t really know O‘ahu. Grew up in Kapahi—Pu‘u Ka‘a, actually—on the island of Kaua‘i, which is in the Kapa‘a district. And I always felt attached to here, cause my mom is from He‘eia Kea on this island.
Please elaborate on this connection to O‘ahu.
THB: Let’s see, how can I put it? I always felt like my piko, my connection, or my center, was on O‘ahu and not necessarily on Kaua‘i. Although I’m very much attached to Kaua‘i, growing up there, there was something that was here. And I think that’s probably my mom’s connection to He‘eia Kea. It’s hard to explain but, you know where you’re supposed to be?
What is your ethnicity?
THB: Portuguese, Hawaiian, Scottish, Irish, and Cherokee.
OK, I don’t know if this is a weird question, but do we have to go into blood percentages when talking about Hawaiian ethnicity?
THB: Yeah, it’s one of those weird questions. The blood quantum is not necessarily what makes one identify with their Hawaiian culture. People can be ethnically Hawaiian and not necessarily culturally Hawaiian.
Understood. What is your theatre background/training?
THB: From a young age I got involved in performing; whether it was hula, or in the church choir, perhaps. I’m a Catholic girl. Grew up very involved in the church. My dad and I, actually, we would speak at mass.
As far as the Western Theatre introduction, when I was in the ninth grade, the Kaua‘i Performing Arts Center was founded. I auditioned and got in. What the Kaua‘i Performing Arts Center did was it brought students from all three high schools (we only have three high schools: Kapa‘a, Kaua‘i, and Waimea) to study theatre after school and perform a play and a musical annually.
Through my involvement in KPAC I had the opportunity to apply for SPEBE (the Summer Program for the Enhancement of Basic Education) where they would pick 20 students to stay here, live in the dorms, and come to Kennedy Theatre, and take classes each and every day, and at night we had rehearsal. So we were constantly busy, eight in the morning to eight, nine at night. At the end of the summer—it was a six to eight week program—we put on three productions. We had a mainstage production, The Taming of the Shrew, and in the Lab Theatre we had two shorter productions, W.B. Yeats plays.
And I think at that moment I decided I was going to come school here. I was going to do theatre, no matter what.
So I did four years of KPAC, um, I wrote a short play my senior year…
Was that the first play you ever wrote?
THB: I guess that was the first play I ever wrote by myself. It was entitled Love on the Line, and it was basically problems that teenagers face. [Laughs.] So that happened. And then I did Junior Miss.
What’s “Junior Miss?”
THB: It’s a pageant—but no more bikini, ’kay! [Laughs.] It was a scholarship pageant, so my motivation was to get money for college. For my talent I did a monologue—Phoebe from As You Like It. In all the years of Junior Miss people did not do acting, so that was different—I won the talent portion of the competition!
THB: I’m not trying to brag about Junior Miss, I’m not, like, a pageant queen kind of a person, but that’s actually how I met Lee Cataluna.
She and I met that year because she was working at Kaua‘i Cable, and she was a journalist and came to interview all the contestants one day and we just hit it off. And then after the pageant she called me and was like, “Now you gotta answer Miss Kaua‘i!” And she actually had entered! So since then we’ve been friends pretty much.
She’s gonna get a kick when she reads this. So, before this career move to the Dept. of Theatre and Dance, what were you doing prior?
THB: For 14 years I was at Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language here at Mānoa. It wasn’t Kawaihuelani back then. Back then it was part of Hawaiian and Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures. You had all the “brownies,” yeah? You had Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Ilocano, Tagalog, Thai, Cambodian, all the languages, all the brownies were in Spalding [Spalding Hall].
I never thought I was going to be a teacher. Let me just put that out there. I never thought I was going to be a kumu.
But when I was in third year Hawaiian my kumu, Puakea Nogelmeier, pulled like four, five of us to come to his office, and we all looked at each other like, “Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.” He hands us this slip of paper, and told us “You’re going to teach at the kupuna program.” [“Kupuna” meaning “grandparent” or “elder.”] The interesting thing is the people that he had hand picked, we’re all teachers now. He saw it in us. When I look back now, it makes me think what our calling is. Sometimes we’re koho ‘ia, we’re chosen to be doing stuff.
How did this new Hawaiian theatre instructor position happen?
THB: This position came through a strategic hiring initiative from Chancellor Hinshaw. She wanted to see native Hawaiian scholars across the campus in different fields. We have this position in theatre, a position in music for Hawaiian music, two positions in the School of Law, and in the John A. Burns School of Medicine, they got like four positions, I believe, to look at native Hawaiian health issues. It’s a true blessing.
That’s excellent. How are you liking your new posi—
THB: [Interrupting] I’m loving! [Laughs.] I’m teaching Theatre of Oceania, Beginning Playwriting, and Hawaiian 486, which is Kahua Hanakeaka. It’s a Hawaiian medium production course: the mounting of a Hawaiian medium one-act, an original one-act play.
Would this be in Hawaiian?
THB: Yes, it is in Hawaiian.
So there’s two courses that I developed when I was [at Kawaihuelani] that were theatre oriented: One was the Hawaiian 485: Haku Hanakeaka, which is Hawaiian language playwriting. When students enroll in that course they write an original one-act in Hawaiian. And then 486 is the actual production of an original piece.
So just to clarify your theatre background, are you more of an actress, director, or playwright?
THB: I wear multiple hats! [Laughs.]
Absolutely! [Laughs.] So how did you first get into directing or playwriting?
THB: So I wanted to do a senior thesis when I was doing my undergrad here. I was motivated to do something in Hawaiian, so I said, “OK, I going to direct a play in Hawaiian!” And I started looking… going to Hamilton… the Hawaiian-Pacific collection… checking out the archives of Bishop Museum… and zero. There wasn’t a play completely in Hawaiian. This was in ’95.
So in searching, at that time I was in Hawaiian 402, I think, and we were reading this story Kaluaiko‘olau. It is a story based on Ko‘olau, people call him the “Outlaw” on the island of Kaua‘i. It’s a story I grew up with. So like, things start to reveal themselves, “This is the story to be done and you gotta do it.”
It was my first Hawaiian language play I ever wrote. Now this text is not your average, everyday Hawaiian. It’s very flowery, it’s higher level of Hawaiian. However it is a true life story that Pi‘ilani Ko‘olau, the wife of Ko‘olau dictated to Kahikina Sheldon. So that was the text we were reading Hawaiian 402. Challenging, very challenging. New vocabulary all over the place. Complex grammatical patterns.
And y’know it just kinda hit me, “This story needs to be told.” Because what was printed in many English versions of the story was totally not the truth.
So it got scripted. I basically begged a whole bunch of friends, “Please be in this production!” All I could do was feed them! I am so grateful to my fellow Hawaiian language friends. Many were not theatre people. There were hula people involved so they were used to performing. But as far as acting in a play, it was something very new for them.
It was amazing. We had a common goal to tell this story, and to do it in Hawaiian.
So from that one project is that where the playwriting started?
THB: That’s pretty much where the playwriting started happening.
And now you teach playwriting. So what are some of the things you teach in your classes? What are the secrets to playwriting?
THB: There is no secret formula! That’s the first thing I tell my students.
The major thing that I hope to impart to them is to have them tell their story, and in their voice. Find their voice as a playwright. We all have a unique voice and a unique story to share.
As far as your own plays go, what’s your process for writing?
THB: This is going to sound “off,” but plays come to me in dreams. [Laughs.] People going think I’m mental or something!
[Laughs.] “We hired this person?”
THB: [Laughs.] “She listens to her dreams?!?”
Like good dreams or bad dreams?
THB: They’re very vivid. Sometimes I hear stuff being spoken, and I wake up in the middle of the night and pencil it. I’ll have a pen and pad next to the bed and write it, and then later on stuff comes from it, and then I see the dots connect them sometimes.
For me, that’s my ancestors. Majority of the stuff that I’ve written is historically based. It’s ancestral material, connected to some being that walked this earth at one time. I feel blessed to have them speak, or guide, or show something, and motivate or inspire the writing.
I try to listen. And I try to be connected so I can receive.
Do you have any favorite playwrights around town you admire or emulate?
THB: [Whispers.] Loaded question! [Laughs.] I love Lee’s work. The comedy is… she has an ear for it. Her clever way of writing I greatly appreciate.
Alani Apio. I have great appreciation for his work and the depth of his work. There’s a place for that that needs to be written.
A person that has kind of carved the path for us or opened the road for us is Victoria Nālani Kneubuhl. Without her work, I think, we wouldn’t have someplace to pick up and move forward to. So I think that she’s created that path for us, and I have gratitude for that. And the stories she put on stage as well—very powerful and very necessary.
Her uncle, John Kneubuhl. His work was, y’know, probably before its time, in many ways. It’s relevant today.
That handful of writers I just mentioned, I feel that it’s very important for all those voices to be heard because they kind of collectively paint a picture.
Outside of Hawai‘i, there are a lot of pacific playwrights coming from Aotearoa or New Zealand that are doing amazing work, groundbreaking work. And I appreciate what they’re doing.
I want to see more stuff that’s happening out there happening here. There needs to be more of us doing culturally relevant and deep kind of rooted work that speaks to people today. It kind of bridges the worlds of traditional beliefs and modern contemporary life.
From the handful of playwrights you mentioned, what’s the last good play you saw from one of them?
THB: Recently, Kamau A‘e was remounted. I really loved seeing Charles [Timtim] playing that character [the lead, Michael Kawaipono Mahekona]. Excellent, wonderful, powerful theatre.
Future plans: what do you have coming up?
THB: I’m slated to do something on the mainstage, 2014-15. I’m kind of contemplating the idea of Māuiakamalo. To remount that, and to rewrite that for this generation. Y’know it’s been since ’98, right? There’s a whole generation that hasn’t heard those stories. So I’m contemplating that.
What I know will happen is that it will be a collaborative effort between myself, Kumu Keawe Lopes [a colleague from Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language], and also Aaron Sala, who’s the musical hire—he’s my counterpart [through the native Hawaiian strategic hiring initiative] in mele—music. So the three of us will collaborate.
I’m excited to see what you come up with.
THB: Me too! [Laughs.]
So what exactly is this cultural theatre title?
THB: It’s Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Theatre, and then I’m taking on playwriting, too.
What exactly does this new cultural position entail?
THB: I would like to see—and this is part of the job description—I would like to create courses and a track in Hawaiian theatre. Something that would mirror the Japanese or the Chinese track, or the Indonesian track as well. So I’m looking at, within the next four years, to come up with maybe three or so courses that would be Hawaiian theatre courses.
And beyond that, I want to see Pacific theatre. So bringing in other Polynesian forms, even Melanesian, perhaps even Micronesian. But really going into a Hawaiian and Pacific theatre. I’d like to see that happen.
Let’s say you have a student from Bible Belt, Small Town, U.S.A., why should they take the course? Why is this important?
THB: I think they should take the course just because there’s no place else in world they can learn it. This is going to be a hub for Hawaiian and Pacific theatre. That is my commitment. No place else in the world can you learn the indigenous theatre forms of here. This is the place to have it happen.
There’s a number of reasons why people are attracted to this department. It’s a hub for Asian theatre. And a student from wherevers, they want to study Kabuki. So they get immersed. They take Japanese language, they take all the Japanese theatre courses, and they participate in a mainstage production. They go through that rigorous training. So I do believe a similar thing can happen for Hawaiian theatre.
What about a Hawaiian student, or maybe someone from the Pacific who’s familiar with Hawaiian culture, why should they take the course? Why is it important for them?
THB: Probably that’s two-fold: they get to share what they know, and they get to enhance what they know.
That’s the other commitment I have: to get more local students into this department. There isn’t enough of “us” [referring to our shared local upbringing]. I can remember as an undergrad and as a graduate student looking around, kind of like, “Ho, wow, no more really any ‘brownies.’” So just local students, no matter what their ethnicity, they should come. They should get in and explore the possibilities and find a means for expressing their stories. It’s very important.
Is there a driving mission for the Hawaiian students?
THB: Coming from an oral society, we’ve always been into telling stories. This is just furthering that. It’s retelling stories in a different medium. So we have this need to share our history, our story. And I think that might be the thing that attracts them, coupled with language learning.
When you’re involved in a Hawaiian language play, there is no way around it: you are going to become a better speaker. It’s a means for strengthening their language capabilities.
Students that have taken the playwriting class, they are shocked, they are amazed at what they are able to do at the end of the semester. They become a lot more conversational because of the intense study of the play script. And the repetition of learning lines, and delivering lines in rehearsal. So it can be a means for learning language, or furthering fluency.
The plays you’ll be producing, will they be strictly in Hawaiian or bilingual or…?
THB: The first production will definitely be all in Hawaiian. I think over time, there might be something bilingual, but I definitely think the first couple will probably be in Hawaiian. Because we need to let people know that it exists, and we need to put it on the map here.
That’s not to say I won’t write something in pidgin or something, but definitely it’s going to be ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i.