A pioneer for Hawaiian performing arts

By Jennifer Wong

Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker
Professor of Hawaiian Theater at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

HONOLULU – Before this semester, performance in Hawaiian language was unheard of in the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Theater Department. But recently, the department hired Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker, former Hawaiian language teacher for the Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language in Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, to share her talents of Hawaiian theater.

Baker grew up in Kapa‘a, Kaua‘i and was surrounded by her family’s hunting and fishing stories. Storytelling, for Baker, was not just an interest, but a lifestyle.

“The mo‘olelo (histories/stories) inform us of who we are and where we’re going, how to make sense of life,” said Baker. “And those lessons that are encased in mo‘olelo are so valuable.”

In the first grade, Baker performed in a play where she developed her passion for performing and by high school, she performed with the Kaua‘i Performing Arts Center where theater became her new passion and audience reaction fueled her performance.

While attending the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa as a student, Baker’s love of the stage allowed her to develop new ways to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture through Hawaiian theater.

“I was looking in the archives and looking through the Hawaiian collection and there were Charlot’s bilingual plays, but there wasn’t anything completely in Hawaiian,” Baker said.

That’s when she realized that if she wanted to direct a play completely in Hawaiian, she would have to write a play herself. Her senior thesis, “Kaluaiko‘olau,” was inspired not only by her goal to write and direct a play in Hawaiian, but also by a song called “Nā Pali Outlaw.” The combination of theater and the Hawaiian language at the time was a dream in the making for Baker.

As a new professor in the Theater department at the university, Baker is developing a new program driven by her passion for Hawaiian language theater. Baker has submitted three course proposals so far. Two of the course proposals include “Drama and Theater of Hawai‘i,” which will analyze the history of theater in Hawai‘i and traditional Hawaiian performance forms, and “Hawaiian Acting Workshop,” which is structured similar to the Asian acting workshops that the Theater department has currently.

Every course that Baker teaches is unique and gives students the opportunity to produce, perform and do other related things such as set design.

She is also working to produce a new play about Samuel M. Kamakau, a Native Hawaiian scholar, and working with schools and community groups such as Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau and Kumu Kahua Theatre. Baker and her students have also been invited to perform at the Pacific Islanders in the Arts Festival in April and the Network of Ensemble Theaters Microfest USA National Summit for one week in June.

In the 2014-2015 academic year, when Kennedy Theater has its 51st year anniversary, Baker and her students are scheduled to perform in the inaugural production of Hawaiian Theater on the main stage.

Outside of work, Baker is actively involved with her children’s schools. Her son recently got accepted to Kamehameha Schools and her daughter attends Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau. She and her family are also very involved with the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) and other community based projects in Ko‘olaupoko, O‘ahu.

Baker’s passion for the Hawaiian language, culture and theater has made her a pioneer in this new style of Hawaiian performing arts.

Jennifer Wong is a pursuing a B.A. in journalism at UHM.