Kalihi to Kalaupapa: A New Play Shares One Woman’s Story of Surviving Exile
Local-born actress finds unexpected clues to her own family’s mystery in Hawaiʻi.
Photos: Erich Steinwandt
When Ku‘ulei Shafee got the role of a Honolulu woman whose real-life journey went from diagnosis with Hansen’s disease in 1934 to exile in remote Kalaupapa, she connected with the compelling story of an ordinary life upended.
What Shafee didn’t realize was that she’d also discover evidence that a member of her own family had been sent to the Moloka‘i colony where some 8,000 died.
Shafee is playing the lead role in the world premiere of Shipment Day, opening this week at Mānoa Valley Theatre. This is the story of activist Olivia Robello Breitha who was diagnosed with what was then an incurable disease known as leprosy.
Breitha’s story is told—in true local fashion—by a cousin who hadn’t known about her as a child. Hawai‘i-born playwright Lorenzo DeStefano explains he learned in his late 30s that Breitha was his first cousin. “I was fortunate enough to spend 17 years getting to know and love this amazing woman,” DeStefano says. The play was inspired by her memoir, My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa, “and by stories she told me in her living room in Kalaupapa,” he says.
This play, set in Honolulu between 1934 and 1937, is an expanded and fully produced version. A shorter treatment at Kumu Kahua Theatre received Best Play award in Playbuilders of Hawai‘i's 2016 New Works Festival. Manoa Valley Theatre then commissioned DeStefano to write the longer version that’s now being performed as one 75-minute act without intermission.
Without giving away too much, the play recounts Olivia’s diagnosis at 18, her two-and-a-half-year confinement at Kalihi Hospital, leading to the day before her shipment to the isolated settlement as Hawai‘i State Department of Health parolee #3306. She spent most of the next 70 years of her life there—even after the quarantine was lifted in 1969— until her death in 2006 at the age of 90. She wrote that her prison had become her paradise.
That small-town family connection that brought DeStefano to Breitha also connected the playwright to Shafee as a child. DeStefano was working on Maui—on a documentary about comedian/candidate Bu Laia—and met her mother through her work in the Hawaiian activist community.
And that’s also how then 9-year-old Shafee met the kind and spirited woman she would eventually portray: “I just remember standing at the foot of her bed. Her toes were curled in toward the bottom of her foot. And I noticed her hands the same thing, her fingers were curled in toward her hands.”
Shafee, now 29, says she’s grateful for the opportunity. “Her book spans all 90 years of her life. She’s sweet and kind and feisty and she’s a fighter. She’s all the layers that human beings have,” Shafee says. “I hope that people leave the play checking in with themselves and doing a self evaluation in how they treat other people.”
The Maui-born Shafee grew up in Kula but attended Baldwin High School for its drama program. She graduated in 2007, auditioned for and was accepted on scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. “It was fun and scary and I missed home a lot and at the time I was dating a boy I thought I loved him and that was hard,” she says. Since graduating in 2009, she’s been working in LA in the typical actor’s mix of roles and odd jobs, including stints at restaurants and a wax museum.
She and another actress also teamed up to write short films to promote themselves as actors, which evolved into writing more scripts and a small-scale production company. “I started helping writers edit their scripts and help develop their stories,” she says.
To prepare for the role of Olivia, she traveled to Kalaupapa. “They told us that almost every family in Hawai‘i probably has a family member who was a patient at Kalaupapa,” Shafee says. Most never saw their families again. “Olivia was actually one of the lucky ones because her parents moved to Kalaupapa at one point and they ran the bakery there.”
On Moloka‘i, Shafee says she asked about a relative who’d been rumored to have had the dreaded disease. “I did end up finding out that my great-great grandmother was a patient there and no one in our family really knew about that. We knew that her name was taboo (nobody talked about her like they did other family members, although her name was listed in their geneaology.) and that her name was Waiolama.”
Shafee is staying in touch with a cultural anthropologist who’s helping her find out more. A tsunami reportedly washed away tombstones that might have included her great-great grandmother’s, she said, but they are hoping to still find a photograph.
At first, Shafee was reluctant to discuss her family search for answers: “I went to Kalaupapa for Olivia and to walk in her footsteps and see where she lived and get to know the patients and hear their stories and I ended up finding a little piece of myself.”
Shipment Day runs Nov. 8 to 25. Showtimes are Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m. Tickets are $40 for general admission, $35 for seniors and military, $22 for 25 years and younger. Minimum age is 12. Call (808) 988-6131 or purchase tickets online at manoavalleytheatre.com. Doors open for seating 30 minutes prior. The cast members are Aiko Chinen as Betty, David Heulitt as Hank, Richard Bragdon as Carl, Karen Kaulana as Mary Fernandes, Ku’ulei Shafee as Olivia, Lauren Murata as Linda, Maleko McDonnell as Les Teixeira/Joe and William Ha’o as Manuel Robello.