In 1897, a delegation of Hawaiians travelled to Washington, DC with 38,000 signatures opposing Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. The proposed “annexation treaty” failed. Less than a year later, infected by the fever of impending war in the Philippines, the US annexed strategically located Hawaii by way of a joint resolution of Congress, which required a simple majority instead of the two-thirds vote necessary to ratify treaties. I learned all this on a Thursday night, and I didn’t have to read a thing. It was “enacted” live before my eyes as living history.
“Why do you think these kinds of presentations are important today?” Hawaiian scholar Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoole Osorio asked the Feb. 23 audience of Mai Poina: The Annexation Debate, opening the post-performance discussion in the King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center Courtroom at Aliiolani Hale. The response was tentative at first, until a young woman spoke up about what the performance meant to her–a reminder of what her ancestors stood for, what they accomplished and their overall struggle. Her emotion, controlled yet noticeable in her words and visible on her face, moved others to speak up.
One woman said that if she’d had a tomato or some other fruit, she might have thrown it at the man whose performance so infuriated her. “I know he was just acting,” she said, but knowing something intellectually isn’t the same as knowing something emotionally, she went on to explain. The man she referred to was David C. Farmer, an actor portraying William O. Smith, one of the six historical figures brought to life in the “living history” shaped from actual historical records by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl.
Osorio asked another question: Why did so many of us snicker when the two pro-annexation characters–Smith and Sen. John Tyler Morgan (Steve Wagenseller)–said things like “manifest destiny” and “Arian justice and enlightment,” noting that it was their responsibility to annex Hawaii in order to secure freedom for her people? No one in the courtroom had found the words of Emma ‘Aima Nawahi (Cynthia See) or James Keauiluna Kaulia (Charles Kupahu Timtim) remotely humorous. Timtim, an erudite judge, presided over “the debate” and exposed one side to be disgraceful–worthy of ridicule–while the other remained honorable and noble.
“Agreeing to annexation,” Timtim proclaimed, at that moment fully assuming his role, “is like agreeing to being buried alive.” He had put aside his binder–which some of the role players carried in order to read from during the performance–and delivered the whole of this powerful speech with the passion one can imagine the historical Kaulia had felt when he spoke those words.
Mai Poina means “don’t forget,” in other words, to always and forever remember, to remember again and again. Re-member, as in re-people–remind people that they are members–of a place, a people, a nation: the lahui.
“The lahui still exists,” said Osorio, without a government of its own, for now, he acknowledged. Many today–like Miriam M. Michelson and Sen. R. F. Pettigrew (played by Lala Buzzell and Matthias Maas), two Americans who were opposed to annexation and did what they could to try and prevent it–believe in the enduring strength of the lahui. Its members were present that Thursday night in the courtroom, collectively remembering.