Keep Your Eyes on the Hands: I Came, I Saw, ‘iHula’
"Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people." --King David Kalakaua
iHula by Ryan Okinaka plays at Kumu Kahua Theatre now through Sunday, December 4th. It is a simple story of four young women that share a love for hula. Each sister in the hālau wrestles with a personal struggle. We see each one play out, and by the end of the play we find that their struggles have been resolved... but not without some hard lessons. Kumu hula Iwalani Kaleihua heads a Honolulu hula hālau. Passed down through the generations, Kumu Iwalani seeks to prepare granddaughter, Iwapono, to step into her shoes and be the next kumu hula. However, Iwapono is reluctant and resists allowing her grandmother the pleasure of seeing her legacy carried out. Her behavior sparks fights with three of her closest hula sisters leading ultimately to isolation. Pumehana has issues with self image and is comfortable dancing hidden in the back row. Jen, the only haole girl in the hālau, is level-headed and in love with hula and the Hawaiian culture. Finally there is Kanani, who is the youngest of the group, 17 going on 25. Kumu tries to shepherd each girl with wisdom and insight and although each is resistant at first, the end result is touching and heart warming.
What makes this play different from any other is that there is hula. Real hula. Not the Waikiki lūʻau kind hula that has permeated every hotel beachside from Kauaʻi to Hawaiʻi Island, but real honest to goodness, beautiful hula. Okinaka generously applies classic Hawaiian music and hula throughout his story, ultimately transforming his play into somewhat of a hybrid--a "Hawaiian musical" if you will.
Kahana Ho plays kumu hula Iwalani with a steady hand. Stern, yet warm and understanding, we see the frustration of a kumu who connects with her haumāna on many levels but is unable to make the connection with her own granddaughter. Anette Aga, Lelea'e Kahalepuna-Wong, Jaime Bradner and Katja Berthold convincingly play a group of young hula sisters living in a modern society of social media applications and personal distractions. Geph Albo Jr., the only male in the cast, is endearing as Kane, a hula dancer from another hālau and the love interest of Pumehana. Each character is showcased with their own hula and each actor delivers.
Set designer BullDog assembles a typical hula hālau studio, complete with laminate wood flooring with a wall of mirrors on either side and finished with various hula implements and decor. Lighting design by Cora Yamagata transports the audience to different locales without the need of any set changes. She deftly applies color and mood to each scene--encouraging the audience to willingly follow along. Costuming by Carlynn Wolfe is spot on with contemporary and hula hālau attire perfected for each character. Sound design by Matthew Mazzella lends a sense of place to each scene. Kumu hula Nathan Okinaka lends his aloha with his hula choreography, grabbing the viewer's heart along this emotional journey. With director Harry Wong III at the helm orchestrating this symphony of artisans and actors, iHula is definitely a production you won’t want to miss.