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History/Genealogy of the Festival


Jacquelyn Pualani Johnson had a dream to create a Pacific theatre festival in her beloved hometown of Hilo.  Inspired by the work of Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker, Pualani's original hope was to create a 1-week conference/festival highlighting theatrical work that reflected “an island sensibility.” (View the text of her story here.) She broached the topic with two friends who shared her passion for theatre of Hawaiʻi: Justina Taft Mattos and Haʻamauliola Makua Aiona. They discussed what types of performances, workshops and other activities might be featured, where the events might occur, who might participate, and how frequently it might happen. They conjectured that it might happen every two years, potentially beginning as early as 2012. It was a big dream, with no funding, staff, or infrastructure to bring it to fruition – and the three women had much on their plates already -- so the idea lay dormant for a few years while it percolated in their minds.


During these years, Kamehameha Schools’ Hawaiʻi Campus was growing its own tradition of a hōʻike performance at the end of the school year that featured all grade-levels working together on a large production incoorporating music, singing, acting, and dance. Originally performed with English language dialogue and Hawaiian language singing, these performances evolved into a more operatic style, epic and highly dramatic, sung entirely in the Hawaiian language.


Jackie Pualani Johnson nominated Kamehameha School's performance of Hāʻupu for a tour to the internationally acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. When the tour was approved, Kamehameha Schools asked if they could do a “dress rehearsal” performance of their paired-down touring version of the production at the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center. Pualani seized this as the moment to revisit the idea of a Pacific theatre festival, meeting again with Justina and Haʻa to brainstorm on how to create something around the date pre-arranged with Kamehameha. Justina had recently written a Hawaiian language musical for young children, and offered to direct that as the UH Hilo piece for the festival. Haʻa was working with a group of high school students exploring the role of plants in Hawaiʻi’s hula tradition, and offered to create several hands-on workshops culminating with a hula performance incorporating some drama. They realized that what was unique on Hawaiʻi island was the ability to narrow the focus down to Hawaiian language theatre, and thus the mission of the KEAKA Hawaiian Language Theatre Festival was born.


Pualani reached out to Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker, who was the head of a new M.A. program in Hawaiian Theatre at UH Mānoa. She had recently directed Lāʻieikawai, the inaugural production of that new program; so Hailiʻōpua and a few of the female cast members agreed to fly over to share an academic presentation about their research and production process. With these four key organizations involved, planning moved forward for the world’s first Hawaiian language theatre festival, offered in June 2016. This was a grass-roots effort, planned very quickly and without much advance publicity. Space for the event itself was partially sponsored by the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center. UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula College of Hawaiian Language donated rehearsal space for the UH Hilo production. UH Hilo’s Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center provided funding to cover the staffing and equipment expenses of the two-day festival and to subsidize ticket costs, allowing the festival to be offered to the community for free. A total of 608 audience members attended the four events over a two-day period. Audience members were enthusiastic, offering comments such as:

  • “…hoʻomaikaʻi no ka maikaʻi o ka hana keaka ʻo Kakahiaka.  Ua lawe au i kaʻu keiki (5 ona makahiki) a nui kona ʻakaʻaka a minoʻaka hoʻi. Ua komo ka hoihoi i loko ona no kēia hana keaka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi no nā kamaliʻi!  Eia hou, ua lawe pū au i kaʻu kaikamahine a me kaʻu mau ʻohana keiki (he mau keiki kula waena lākou) a ua nui ko lākou makemake kekahi! ʻAʻole i lawa ka nui o nā hana keaka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi no kā kākou mau keiki ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi! He mea maikaʻi ka hana keaka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi no ka hoʻokuluma ʻia ʻana o ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. Mahalo.”  --Kuulei Kanahele, Lecturer, Hawaii Community College

  •  “….it is wonderful to have these events in Hilo!! I assumed the evening play would be in Hawaiian, but had not expected the discussion on La'ieikawai to be in Hawaiian too. I may have missed that if the program mentioned it? But why not, after all? I enjoyed it. Haven't listened to 2 hours of Hawaiian in some time, but I was ok with it. I would not have used the simultaneous translation anyway. Had read La'ieikawai some years ago, so the discussion was interesting to me. And again, was regretting not being in Honolulu when the play was on earlier. Heard an interview about it on HPR…” --UH Hilo Affiliate Professor in English, Dr. Suzanne Romaine

The festival planners discovered that there was a thirst for offerings like this in the Hawaiian language. However, they also realized that it takes time to develop original works, and hosting a festival is expensive. The festival went back into gestation mode as the planners quietly went about devising new works and possible future collaborations.


The festival organizers decided to “take the leap” to make KEAKA a recurring festival and an official 501(c)3 organization with a tiny volunteer Board of Directors. With their new non-profit status, they moved forward to plan another festival with the help of several supporters: Okura & Associates guided them through the process of obtaining non-profit status; the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center donated use of the space; Nelson Makua of Nā Mākua Original Hawaiian Designs created the festival logo, posters, brochure and t-shirts; and a generous anonymous donor pledged to fully fund the costs of the next festival with this message: “Credit goes to the Hawaiian people for having so much aloha, even after all they have been through.”


The festival was offered for a second time, expanding its offerings to include three days of drama outreach activities to Hawaiian language students of Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu and Kamehameha Summer School’s Hālau Kupukupu at the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center. Workshop facilitators included Haʻamauliola Aiona, Jackie Pualani Johnson, Kauʻi Kaina, Keʻalohi Reppun, Justina Taft Mattos, Arianna Bassett, and Rob Abe, with kōkua from Erin McClure, ʻOlilani Keliʻikuli, Lilinoe Ahia, and Mohala Kalauli. The week culminated with two days of public performances in the Hawaiian language:

  • Moʻo Huelo: Tale of a Tail – a musical for keiki

Produced through the UH Hilo Performing Arts Department, this was the story of a boy who goes on a quest to help a superhero, and in the process discovers his own special ability. During his adventure he encounters a variety of strange characters including talking ‘Ua’u birds, a grouchy Happy-Face Spider, and a chorus of crazy crickets. The superhero, “Geckoman,” is a character plucked from the pages of a local Hawaiʻi comic book series called Mana Comics: (Written and directed by Justina Taft Mattos, with music & musical direction by Jace Kaholokula Saplan and choreography by Sharyse Molina)

  • Hoʻoulu – three short plays for teens

Directors Haʻamauliola Aiona and Jackie Pualani Johnson worked with students from Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, who wrote three dramatic pieces for presentation. The short plays explored the choices they face as young people in today’s complex world, and provided a glimpse into decisions regarding bullying, lying, stealing, and disrespecting elders. Each issue was explored from different angles, dealt with, and resolved, leading to deep learning for all involved.

  • Ke Kaua o Kuamoʻo – a hula opera

Written by Herb Mahelona and directed by Eric Stack, this was an opera set after the death of King Kamehameha I, telling the story of the fateful conflict between regional chief Kekuaokalani (loyal to the traditional customs and religion), and Liholiho (the new King), swayed by his Regent mother to end the old ways to make way for the new. Through music, traditional dance and chant, the story is retold of the fate of an island nation shaped by a single battle.


45 students participated in the weekday drama workshops, and a total of 892 people attended the three public performances on June 14 and 15. Again, audiences and participants were enthusiastic, sharing comments such as:

  • “Thank you immensely for doing this work and making this art. It feels like a miracle made by community with so much aloha. Changing the world! Mahalo.”

  • “Love to see it has grown, and we are excited to see how it/what it expands to in the years to come. It would be great if one of the pieces could carry on to visit our schools.”

  • “Maikaʻi nō ka hana keaka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. E ola, e holomua, e ulu i kēia hana koʻikoʻi!”

  • "Mahalo i ka mālama i kēia ʻano ʻaha no ka hoʻōla i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi me ka hana keaka pū.”

  • “This was such a great opportunity to have my keiki learn Hawaiian while performing. Definitely a lot of commitment but worth it.”

  • “Loved it all, mahalo! The Nāwahī students were amazing and loved that they had this opportunity to experience real acting.”

  • “So excited to see this original production Herb Mahelona is our treasure. Amazing lyrics and story. Incredible wealth of young talent!”


After the 2019 festival was complete, organizers and stakeholders met to debrief. They determined that the next festival should be planned for 2022, and thereafter it would be held every “even” year (2024, 2026, etc.).


  • ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Piha (staged performances fully in Hawaiian language)

  • Hoʻoulu ʻŌlelo (staged performances at least half in Hawaiian language)


  • Hoʻoulu Kuanaʻike (staged performances that are less than half in Hawaiian language, but reflect Hawaiian thought, history, and culture)

  • Mele Uhau (slam poetry in Hawaiian language)

  • Hoʻonui ʻIke (workshops, hōʻike, etc.)


  • Kiʻi ʻoniʻoni (film in Hawaiian language)

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The Covid-19 global pandemic was in full force when the 2022 festival was being planned, so the committee made the decision to hold the festival fully online this year. Performances would be videotaped, and links to the productions would be shared online. This made it easier to protect the community and to invite participants from neighbor islands.

While Hawaiian language theatre productions continued to be the primary focus of the festival, the Board of Directors also decided to expand the range of offerings that would be featured, celebrating the many ways that performance was being used to support the use of Hawaiian language. This yearʻs festival branched into slam poetry, film, and plays that are less than 100% in Hawaiian language. Works featured in the festival now are:

With the intention of encouraging further growth in Hawaiian language theatre, the Board of Directors also decided to put out an invitation for proposals in collaborative playwriting: pairing a fluent Hawaiian language speaker with an experienced playwright, to work together to write a new work of theatre during the upcoming year, with the hope that the new work would be brought to the next KEAKAfest.

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