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A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa hana keaka (play) written and directed by a graduate student in the Department of Theatre and Dance captured eight national awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). The national theatre program, which incorporates 18,000 students annually from colleges and universities across the country, awarded productions in higher education that promote long-term societal impacts through an artistic lens.

Performed exclusively in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), UH Mānoa Hawaiian Theatre production, He Leo Aloha, follows the story of a group of kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) students at UH Mānoa and their struggles with finding and navigating love and the meaning of true aloha.

singer and band on stage
UH Mānoa mele preservation center, Ka Waihona A Ke Aloha and the Tuahine Troupe from the Hawaiian language department provided live music in the production.

“Mahalo nui to the entire creative team, particularly Kumu Keawe and Ka Waihona a ke Aloha as well as Kumu Hailiʻōpua for their mentorship.These awards are truly a testament to the beauty of our mele and moʻolelo and the amazing kānaka who continue to serve as their vessels today,” said Kaipulaumakaniolono Baker, a MFA candidate in Hawaiian Theatre who penned the play.

The hana keaka which opened Kennedy Theatre’s 2021–22 mainstage season last October earned awards ranging from directing, individual performances, to lighting and music. Baker incorporates traditional mele (songs) and original oli (chants) to accentuate and highlight the importance of language and the power that it carries. The production features a 12-piece live band under the direction of Kumu R. Keawe Lopes Jr., director of the UH Mānoa Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language.


2 actors on stage
From left, Kaʻula Krug and Kaneikoliakawahineikaʻiukapuomua Baker were recognized for their individual performances

He Leo Aloha

  • Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Award
  • Special achievement in the production of a new work
  • Special achievement in production design
  • Special achievement in lighting design (Jonah Bobilin)
  • Special achievement in direction by student artists (Kaipulaumakaniolono Baker)
  • Special achievement in individual performance (Kaʻula Krug and Kaneikoliakawahineikaʻiukapuomua Baker)
  • Special achievement in musical direction (Ka Waihona A Ke Aloha, Kumu Keawe Lopes and the Tuahine Troupe)

Hana keaka genre flourishing

UH aspires to be the world’s foremost Indigenous serving university. In 2014, the Hawaiian Theatre program was formally established at UH Mānoa by Associate Professor Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker. Lāʻieikawai, the inaugural hana keaka production she wrote and directed, played to sold out audiences on the Kennedy Theatre mainstage in 2014 before touring to Hawaiʻi Island, Molokaʻi, Kauaʻi and Aotearoa (New Zealand). In January 2020, Baker’s production ʻAuʻa ʻIa: Holding On, was showcased off-Broadway in New York City.

“The concept of poʻokela (excellence) is at the core of our training in hana noʻeau (visual and performing arts) and these accolades recognize that excellence,” Baker said. “We hope that this recognition bolsters the building of the Hawaiian Theatre program and more haumāna (students) enroll and learn to author, direct and produce more moʻolelo (stories) of our Pae ʻĀina (archipelago) to share with our community.”

In January 2022, He Leo Aloha received an invitation to virtually perform at the KCACTF Region 8 festival normally held on the West Coast. The region encompasses college and university theatre productions from Arizona, Central and Southern California, Guam, Hawaiʻi, Southern Nevada and Utah. The award-winning play advanced to the national category and outshone dozens of top ranked productions from across the country.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Becoming a Native Hawaiian Place of Learning (PDF) and Enhancing Student Success (PDF) two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

A virtual production premiered in October 2021 and is the first-ever Hawaiian language play to open Kennedy Theatre’s mainstage season.
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