Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: Three Plays by John Kneubuhl

It is Christmas day, 1929, in the village of Leone, American Samoa. In one fale (home), the adults are preparing for the arrival of a special Christmas guest - no, not Santa Claus, but rather, Tamasese, the supposed distant-cousin of the matriarch of this fale, Luʻisa Kreber. A little bit about the Krebers: Luʻisa is an afakasi (or half-Samoan); she is the descendent of Samoan aliʻi (ruling chiefs) and white missionaries. Her husband, Frank Kreber, is a fully white American who moved to American Samoa. They have one son, David.

The Krebers and their story are fictional; they are the product of the playwright John Kneubuhl. But the character Tamasese is not fiction. On Christmas day, 1929, he was a real man, a young man, returning with courage to Apia, the colonial capital of Western Samoa, to confront the misrule of Western Samoa's occupiers, the New Zealand government. He was the leader of the Mau movement, the Samoan movement for independence. In Kneubuhl's tale, the Krebers are preparing for Tamasese to stop by their fale on Christmas evening before his triumphant return to Apia...but he never shows up. In the days following that Christmas evening, Frank Kreber and Luʻisa's brother Lilo spend much of their time in town waiting for news from Apia of Tamasese's whereabouts and well-being. 

In the early morning of December 28, 1929, a peaceful demonstration by the Mau movement and their supporters in Apia was disrupted by stone throwing and, eventually, the firing of guns. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III was shot and critically injured. He died the next day. December 28, 1929, known as Black Saturday for Samoans, marked a major turning point in the Mau movement's struggle for Samoan independence: the New Zealand colonial administration began a crackdown on Samoan rebels, and the movement's momentum, which was reaching a climax by the late 1920s, was suddenly stifled. Now, with Tamasese's death, and under the tightening grip of New Zealand's colonial occupation, it would still be another three decades before Samoa would achieve independence in 1962.

Photograph of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, leader of the Mau movement, with other Mau members (1929)
"Samoa Mo Samoa" (Samoa for the Samoans): the Mau's motto
(Source: Wikipedia)

Tamasese's gravestone in Lepea, Samoa
(Source: Wikipedia)

Think of a Garden

Kneubuhl sets his play, Think of a Garden, amid the hope, despair, and tumult felt by Samoans in the wake of Black Saturday. We, as the audience of the play, see the events of late 1929 through the eyes of David, the young son of Luʻisa and Frank Kreber. And David, as a young man of mixed Samoan and European/Euro-American heritage, sees the events through his own tinted lens, as he himself confronts what it means at this time and place to be, or not to be, Samoan.

The adults in Think of a Garden continually express concern that David lacks other friends of his own age. Some of the adults hope that David will make friends in the local village, but Luʻisa and Frank, David's parents, both seem opposed to the idea of David mingling with Samoan children. As much as Frank supports the Mau, he slips up now and then referring to the local Samoans in Leone as "savages," and as "ignorant." Luʻisa makes similar remarks. Frank and Luʻisa are interesting because while they both strongly believe in Samoan independence (at least in Western Samoa, if not in American Samoa where they live), at the same time they believe that the future of Samoa belongs to those who orient themselves to the Western world, to modern technology, education, and ideas --- as if to say "yes, Samoa mo Samoa" (Samoa for the Samoans), but only for those Samoans of the right class and upbringing, as if hoping to send Samoa back to an age when aliʻi and missionaries held power rather than to propel Samoa forward into a fully democratic future. 

When it comes to their own child, both Frank and Luʻisa apparently see greater potential in David's European and American heritage than in his Samoan heritage. So when David speaks in Samoan, both of his parents correct him, forcing him to speak English instead. And when David seeks to relate to Samoan neighbors, his parents shelter David from this outside world, fearing his corruption by these peoples' ignorant superstition and backward beliefs. When David goes fishing one day in the village with his uncle Lilo and his white teacher Brother Patrick, he is pelted in the head by a stone thrown by a local villager. Despite the stories the adults want to tell about why David was stoned, in the end we are finally told that David was stoned because he is different, because he does not belong. He was stoned because he is more white than black. And he was stoned because he relates to a ghost from the village that the locals do not want him to resurrect (this is a little confusing, but more on the ghost in a little bit)...

Tamasese's death on Black Saturday forces all the adults in this fale to reflect on the relationships between their own ideas (and ideals) and their own self-identifications. For example, Luʻisa is crushed by Tamasese's death, feeling that all hope is now lost for independence in Western Samoa. But she is also confronted by the fact that she is but an armchair supporter of the Mau; she supports Samoan independence in principle, and she supports it from a distance, but back in Leone, she cannot even acknowledge any sort of relationship with her Samoan neighbors, and she struggles to repress her own Samoan-ness in certain ways. The villagers in Leone shun her, because her ancestors were aliʻi and whites; they do not see her as one of them. And she shuns them. So for Luʻisa, Black Saturday forces her to realize that she is neither here nor there: not Samoan enough to be on the front-lines of the Mau movement in Western Samoa, and yet not Samoan enough (in a different way) to belong among her own neighbors in Leone. And so she retreats inward, placing all her hope in her son, David, that he might reject his Samoan-ness in order to find more peace without having to struggle, like she has (and like Kneubuhl has), to be someone.

For her husband, Frank, the American, Tamasese's death provides a new calling: he travels to Apia to fight with the Mau; then he travels to New Zealand to petition for Samoan independence; he even travels to the League of Nations, if I recall correctly, to plead for Samoa. And he never comes back to Luʻisa. She resents him for many reasons, perhaps most of all for being/acting "more Samoan" than her. And he resents her, perhaps because she is so undeniably stuck within her own cage.

Luʻisa's brother, Lilo, also goes to New Zealand with hopes of petitioning the government to end its occupation of Samoa, but he meets only his own failure and despair there, turning eventually to alcoholism, and dying just a few years later, his soul and spirit crushed.

And David, the boy? He is burdened by all the anxieties and pressure that the adults in his life have placed upon him. At the heart of his struggle is his very Samoan-ness, that which seems to scare his parents the most. Perhaps believing that Samoan-ness is more of a hindrance than a help to a young man in a world where whites are the dominant race, Luʻisa forces herself to believe that David must leave Leone - there is too much Samoan-ness here - and he must go to New Zealand to be re-educated.

Here is where the ghost comes in. David's only real friend his age - because his parents won't let him play with the local Samoan children, and the local Samoans likely won't let their children play with David - is a ghost named Veni. Veni was a young boy who died in the village. He had no great education, no real knowledge of modern things, but he was a through-and-through Samoan. David speaks only the Samoan language with Veni. They often "meet" in the garden of David's family's fale. This is why all the adults in this narrative become scared for David, because they often see him in the garden speaking to himself (where in reality he is speaking to the ghost Veni, whom only he can see). 

The tragedy of Think of a Garden is that David's friendship with Veni is a struggle against all odds. His friendship with Veni represents David's link with his own Samoan past and with his own Samoan identity. As his parents push the modern, Western, palagi (white) world upon him, David's opportunities to explore his own Samoan-ness are stifled. It is tragic that his only true Samoan friend is but a ghost. It is a symbol of how quickly the faʻa Samoa (the Samoan way of life) was becoming a thing of the past in colonial Samoa (East and West) in the 1920s. In the end, when David is sent off to New Zealand, he mourns for what he has to lose: most of all his one Samoan friend, Veni. David and Veni say goodbye in the garden one last time. His uncle, Lilo, tells him that he can always keep Veni (his "Samoan-ness") with him, even in New Zealand. But the reader of Think of a Garden, like myself, is left in doubt: can David really maintain his connection with the Samoan past without this garden in Leone? without the Samoan people of his village? without the Samoan ghosts whom inhabit this place, his homeland?

The playwright, John Kneubuhl

Think of a Garden is, in many ways, an autobiography of the playwright John Kneubuhl. Kneubuhl (Samoan name: Sione Nupo), was born and raised on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa (where Think of a Garden takes place). Kneubuhl's mother was half-Samoan, and a descendant of a Samoan ruling family, just like Luʻisa Kreber. Kneubuhl's father was Euro-American, from Iowa, who moved to American Samoa as a navy surveyor, stationed at Pago Pago. So we can see that Kneubuhl himself grew up in a bi-racial and bi-cultural household just like David did. Did he have his own "Veni" in the garden of the fale of his childhood? I don't know, but clearly Kneubuhl himself struggled with finding acceptance both from himself and from others.

Kneubuhl went to school in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, at the Punahou School. He then studied at Yale University under the tutelage of Thornton Wilder. In World War Two, he traveled back to Hawaiʻi in the armed forces. Following the war, he stayed in Honolulu in the 1940s writing and directing plays with a community theater. He spent the 1950s and much of the 1960s in Hollywood, California, writing for television series. In 1968, Kneubuhl returned to American Samoa as an educator and activist, and in the 1970s he returned to writing for the stage. He lived much of the last decades of his life in Hawaiʻi. The three plays reviewed in this blog post, Think of a Garden, Mele Kanikau: A Pageant, and A Play: A Play, comprise Kneubuhl's great trilogy of these golden years of his career. He died in 1992 on the opening day of the theatrical production of his final play, Think of a Garden.

Mele Kanikau: A Pageant

The thing about Kneubuhl's trilogy is that each play is successively more convoluted and more complex than the last. Both Mele Kanikau and A Play: A Play are plays within plays. Both examine the very act of theater itself: the way in which theater serves to represent and misrepresent people and their stories. And so Mele Kanikau is the story of a pageant put on by Hawaiians for an audience of, we assume, tourists. This pageant is set to take place in Honolulu, perhaps in Waikīkī. It is post-statehood Hawaiʻi, perhaps the 1970s (this is also when Kneubuhl wrote Mele Kanikau). A voice is heard welcoming the audience with a big "Aloha!," inviting them into a story about historical Hawaiʻi, "when the aliʻi reigned in their regal splendor over their loyal and carefree subjects..." Basically, this is neatly-packaged hogwash for tourists seeking a paradisiacal Hawaiʻi. Hula dancers arrive on-stage, and yet Kneubuhl immediately reveals them to be but actors, not real hula dancers. We are also introduced to the aliʻi and even the mōʻī (king) who are the central figures of the pageant, but Kneubuhl once again reveals them only as actors. These men and women, the actors playing the aliʻi, are mostly hapa haole (half-whites/half-Hawaiians), and at least one actress, Lydia, identifies as a descendant of aliʻi, just like the character she is playing. These actors and actresses feel strongly about their portrayal of aliʻi: they want to believe that the Hawaiian past was grand and awesome and blemish-free, just like the tourists want to believe as well. They are here, in this pageant, to claim/reclaim Hawaiian identity. And so, Kneubuhl's pageant inside a pageant is really about how Hawaiian people use performance to redefine themselves; it is Kneubuhl's personal process exposed: his struggle to use theater to come to terms with his own biracial and multicultural self-identity.

Kneubuhl is critical of this pageantry, of the misrepresentation of Hawaiian-ness that he saw Hawaiians themselves creating in the wake of Hawaiʻi's ongoing Americanization. The half-hearted devotion to Hawaiian history expressed by the pageant's faulty hula, fake ʻahuʻula (feather cloaks), and image-projected rainbows irks Kneubuhl; he seeks to expose it for what it is: a mirror upon the Hawaiian people themselves. Kneubuhl's muckraker is the character Noa Napoʻioanaakalā, a Hawaiian hermit who lives on the north shore of Oʻahu. He is a kumu hula (hula teacher) with his own hula school populated by young Hawaiian men and women who only speak the Hawaiian language and adhere, almost religiously, to Hawaiian traditions. Noa is married to Frances, a haole (white) woman, who apparently motivated by the myth of the "noble savage," voluntarily gave up modern, urban, Western life to live in the backwoods with Noa, to speak only the Hawaiian language, and to learn the arts of traditional Hawaiian life.

Noa is hired by the producer of the pageant, Carl Alama, a hapa haole (half-Hawaiian/half-white). Carl has also cast himself as mōʻī (king) in the pageant. The whole pageant idea of presenting the Hawaiian past as if seen through rose-colored glasses is of Carl's making; indeed, he makes his living by packaging Hawaiian history for tourists. But as Kneubuhl reveals to us, Carl cannot speak Hawaiian; and in Kneubuhl's view of things (as evidenced in all three plays), lack of fluency in the native language is tantamount to having rejected one's very own indigeneity. (Note that Kneubuhl deliberately uses Samoan and Hawaiian language at length in all three plays. Even though this might alienate much of his audience who do not understand the languages, the Samoan and Hawaiian passages provide important texture to Kneubuhl's work. These dialogues signify the tangible reality of what Polynesian heritage really is: it is something real from the past, the language of ancestors; it is not the English "pageant"-speak with its phony "alohas" and hula dancing. This heritage is the manner of representation, the way we talk about ourselves, the language we use; but it is not the representation itself. That is, Kneubuhl is arguing that it is how we put on this play that matters, not the very play itself.)

So Carl, the director, hires Noa, the Hawaiian hermit kumu hula, to direct the pageant. And what happens? Noa fires all of Carl's fake hula dancers and replaces them with his own, passionate, sexualized young male and female hula students. Their raw dancing - its raw authenticity - disgusts some of the "pageant" Hawaiians. But so does everything else about Noa and his crew. Noa also alters the play to have Carl read lengthy passages in Hawaiian, but Carl stumbles over the unfamiliar language. Noa also alters the pageant's story, so as to reveal hidden truths about Carl and other actors themselves. Everything about Noa and his crew is about seeking raw truth and reality. It is as if he and his hula dancers are saying, "we are the true Hawaiians, and we have come here to expose you and what you are doing as utterly fake."

One of my favorite lines in the play is at the very end of Act Two when the narrator asks himself, "ʻWhat was it? What flew away, out of our lives?'" I could think only of...oʻo...mamo...iʻiwi...oʻu....A mele kanikau of birds' names....Where did all those little lives go?" In a previous post I wrote about the Hawaiian birds from which feathers were obtained for the production of ʻahuʻula and mahiole (feathered capes and helmets). These bird populations were decimated by this production, all for the sake of providing the aliʻi with grand, beautiful clothing. Kneubuhl uses the disappearance of the ancient Hawaiian birds as a metaphor for the disappearance of traditional Hawaiian practices. Mele Kanikau, the name of this play, means "song of mourning or lamentation." As much as Carl's pageant seeks to give life to Hawaiʻi through theatrical performance, the pageant is really a "song of mourning": behind the scenes it is revealed that Noa's way of life is dying off like the oʻo and mamo birds, while men like Carl Alama who profess to express Hawaiian identity don't even notice or care that the true, tangible remnants of the Hawaiian past are disappearing. Indeed, Noa's full name, Noa Napoʻioanaakalā, means "setting of the sun": we are led to believe that he may be the last authentic kumu hula, and when he dies, all we will be left with is the "pageant," this misrepresented memory of what Hawaiian-ness is all about.

Photograph of Hawaiian hula entertainers at a circus in Salt Lake City (1920)
With Mele Kanikau: A Pageant, Kneubuhl sought to reveal how modern "Hawaiian" performance, as in the photo above, was leading toward the loss of indigenous cultural knowledge rather than helping to preserve a cultural legacy.
(Source: Wikipedia)

A Play: A Play

"You can only define a Hawaiian today by what he has lost - by what he no longer is or can ever be again." 

You can begin to see the theme cutting across this trilogy, no? In A Play: A Play, once again Kneubuhl seeks to address the role of theater in representing and misrepresenting Hawaiian past and present identity. And once again, Kneubuhl is expressing his fear that what it means to be Hawaiian (or Samoan, or Polynesian) is becoming harder and harder to define. A Play: A Play, is the story of a comedic play about a beautiful hapa haole couple who live in Volcano, Hawaiʻi, their Filipino and Chinese male servants, and the unexpected visit of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanism, who becomes their house guest after the leading woman, Julia Brandt, accidently hits her in the backside with her automobile on the road outside their home. Once they take Pele in, she begins to haunt their house in strange ways. She takes on the form of a Hawaiian māhū (used here as "homosexual," but sometimes meaning "transsexual"/"transgender") who seeks to go to bed with Severino, the Filipino male servant. She also takes on the form of a sexy Hawaiian man who slips into Julia Brandt's bed at night and makes love to her (she thinks it is James, her fiancee, though). And Pele also becomes a nubile young wahine (Hawaiian woman) who makes love to James Alama, the man of the house, on the living room couch.

Behind the scenes, Kneubuhl reveals that this is just a play within a play. The actors themselves appear to feel quite ambiguously about the play that they are rehearsing. They feel unsure and uncomfortable about the way that the play represents Hawaiian people (as well as Filipino and Chinese people), and they feel unsure about the way the play sexualizes Pele. And yet, they cannot escape the play. In the end they recognize that they too, as actors, are only the creation of the playwright himself. 

I had trouble understanding A Play: A Play. But perhaps if I saw it performed on stage, it would come across differently to me. Indeed, that is true of all three plays in the trilogy. Reading the plays was a lot of fun, but I do not profess to have a great understanding of any of them as of yet, because Kneubuhl intended for us to see these plays on the stage, not in a book. That said, I still recommend that you read this book! All three plays provide excellent commentary on race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, culture, and the very act of theater/representation itself in Polynesia. If there is anything that Kneubuhl does not do in his plays, it is to fantasize about a mythical Polynesian world. Rather, he continually seeks to disrupt our comfortable imaginings of what Polynesian peoples and cultures were/are like by boldly interjecting native languages, native arts, and in all three plays, native "ghosts" into our line of vision. The ghosts come back to haunt the more forgetful Polynesians, reminding them exactly what, and how much, is at stake should they choose to continue to deliberately forget or erase their connection to that within them that holds the history and traditions of these islands.

Read: John Kneubuhl, Think of a Garden, and Other Plays (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1997).

For reviews of other works of contemporary Pacific literature, see my previous posts on Samoan author Albert Wendt and Māori author Witi Ihimaera. And please suggest other literature that I should read!



  1. Thanks for the post. John was our mentor and inspiration (and benevolent critic)for the Pago Pago writer's group, Sioleo O Samoa, for many years.

    From Pago Pago,

    John Wasko

  2. Enjoyed the review. Malo lava le taumafai.