‘Wild Birds:’ Where Theatre Brings History to Life
I’ll be honest: going to Kumu Kahua Theater on a sleepy Sunday afternoon to catch a matinee performance of a play billed as a “historical drama” at the end of a busy weekend, I feared I would fall asleep in the theater. Yet, the next thing I knew, nearly two hours had flown by and I had been at the edge of my seat the whole time. Director Harry Wong III brings an interesting and important piece of history to life in Wild Birds.
Written by local playwright Eric Anderson, Wild Birds is about the Royal School, founded by Kamehameha III to educate the future generations of ali`i, and taught by Christian missionary-turned-businessman, Amos Starr Cooke. But “Wild Birds is not history,” Anderson insists in his Director’s Notes. “It is solidly based on fact, but the end result…belongs squarely and finally in the realm of theatre.” History only tells us the facts: events, dates, places. When historical figures become characters in a work of drama, figures in stuffy history books can be experienced in front of you as living people.
Wild Birds is magically cast and each of the eight actors bring color and life into their characters, all based on actual historical figures. Max Holtz and Joanna Mills, as Mr. and Mrs. Cooke, do a particularly good job of keeping their characters nuanced and leaving it up to the audience to judge rather than presenting their characters in black-and-white, which is especially impressive with such a controversial character as Cooke. The actors playing the royal pupils were impressive as well. Ryan “Oki” Okinaka stands out as the headstrong and rebellious Prince Moses Kekuaiwa, but all six actors playing the young ali’i did a great job bringing their characters to life. I was particularly impressed by their ability to play convincing school age children—including a 4-year old Lunalilo—without taking away from the serious tone of the play. Costumes by Carlynn Wolfe and hair design by Brenda Pualani Santos add finishing touches to these well-developed characters.
All of these elements are masterfully combined to create a gripping and thought-provoking performance which, while not strictly limited to historical fact, sheds light on a turbulent and controversial period in Hawaiian history.