Hula Ki‘i—with Puppets—Brings a Nearly Lost Art to Honolulu Audiences

The historical puppet hula performance will make a rare appearance at a concert on Oct. 7.
Hula puppets
Photos: Courtesy of Hālau o Kahiwahiwa


Hawaiian historical accounts trace hula ki‘i featuring puppets at least as far back as 1820. But, after the entire practice of hula was repressed by the missionaries, the puppet style faded, making this weekend’s performance a rare opportunity.


An 1886 Hawaiian language newspaper described a performance hosted by royalty and featuring whimsical handmade puppets. A large audience offered “shouts of laughter and great commotion” gathered at the Honolulu Music Hall that once stood at the corner of King and Richards streets.


Hula ki‘i incorporated puppets ranging in size from those that rested on a finger to full-size marionettes. Most were made from a variety of fabric and native wood with pearl-shell eyes: some included real human teeth in the mouths. Only about nine puppets appear to have survived from ancient times.


Hula puppets
Photo: Courtesy of Bishop Museum


“This art form was almost lost during the period when the early missionaries banned the hula,” says kumu hula Auli‘i Mitchell of Hawai‘i Island. “Over the years it has become less recognized, but still an important part of Hawai‘i’s history and an amazing way to tell our stories.”


Mitchell was first introduced to hula ki‘i through his mother, Harriet Aana Cash Mitchell, while the two of them served as kumu hula for the ‘Ainahau O Kaleponi Hawaiian Civic Club in Orange County, California, in the 1980s. For the club’s annual ‘Aha‘aina Scholarship Luau show one year, his mother wanted to highlight rarely seen hula of the past, such as the strenuous hula ohelo, performed horizontally with the body supported by the hand and leg on one side, and other mele from Mitchell’s grandfather Charles Kahiwahiwa Cash’s hula repertoire, gifted to him by esteemed kumu hula Mary Kawena Pukui in the 1930s. Among the ancient styles Mitchell’s mother wanted to include was the hula ki‘i. “I was always fascinated with puppets as a child but had no idea we had them in our culture,” Mitchell says. “Apparently many others did not know as well.”


Mitchell’s research took him to the Bishop Museum—three puppets made of wiliwili wood were sold to the museum in 1914—and then the Smithsonian Institution National Museum in D.C.—six puppets were gifted to the museum in the early 1900s by noted Hawai‘i physician and mythologist Nathaniel B. Emerson. When Mitchell moved back to Hawai‘i in 1990, he began to carve his own hula ki‘i puppets using soft hau wood, natural local fibers, seashells, native seeds and muslin, among other materials. Working with his own hula hālau, Hālau o Kahiwahiwa in Puna, and assisting with Na Pua No‘eau cultural program at the UH Hilo yielded the creation of nearly two dozen puppets over the years.


Hula puppets
kumu hula Auli‘i Mitchell


Puppets of hula ki‘i often represent stock characters (similar to Italian commedia dell’arte theater or Elizabethan drama) and their names represent exaggerated character traits. For example, there’s Nihiaumoe which translates to “midnight prowler,” a lecherous ladies man who sneaks around to women at night. Another is Kini, representing a king, and Makakuikalani, a young chief whose name roughly translates to “the royal boaster.”


Performances often satirized public figures and recognizable members of the local community with plots ranging from aristocrats scheming to find true love to characters boasting to one another and exchanging insults before a fight to the death. “They were able to gently poke fun at the monarchy at a time when under such a system when one could barely even put their eyes on the great Chiefs,” Mitchell says.


For this weekend’s Kāmau Pono concert series, Iwakalua will be an evening of ancient styles of hula at Mamiya Theater hosted by Hawai‘i composer, recording artist and kumu hula Tony Conjugacion with Hālau Na Wainohia, Mitchell and Hālau o Moana-nui-a-Kiwa from Aotearoa, New Zealand. They will perform hula ki‘i with two new three-and-two-feet tall handmade marionettes carved from driftwood, kapa dyed with natural dyes and eyes made of black kukui.


Hula puppets


“Through chant, [the puppets] become vehicles to tell the story using a particular kind of speech called ‘ōlelo kapekepeke or ‘ōlele huna, a secret kind of talk, concealing the meaning from all but the one initiated,” says Mitchell. “Using the hula ki‘i is a way to bring humor to the people about our daily lives and the many legends that came before.”


$35 presale, $40 at the door, Oct. 7, 7 p.m., Mamiya Theatre, 3142 Wai‘alae Ave. For more information and to purchase tickets, go here.