“We cannot fall to this calamity if we know where we come from.” A conversation with Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker.

Call & Response recently reached out to playwright, director, and alum of our National Institute for Directing and Ensemble Creation to discuss the current moment of crisis.

Playwright/Director Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where she is the director of the MFA programs in Playwriting and Hawaiian Theatre. Her work centers on the development of an indigenous Hawaiian theatre aesthetic and form, language revitalization, and the empowerment of cultural identity through stage performance. Originally from Kapa‘a, Kaua‘i she now resides in Kahalu‘u, Ko‘olaupoko, O‘ahu with her ‘ohana.  She attended Pangea World Theater and Art2Action's National Institute of Directing and Ensemble Creation in 2019.

C&R: Is there an object or a practice (sacred or mundane) that gives you solace in these dark times? Is there something or someone who gives you hope?

THB: The daily exchanges with my family members, all here at home practicing social distancing, continues to remind me of what is sacred and mundane; our relationship and aloha for one another is sacred, our enjoyment and laughter is also sacred. Interactions may be mundane, but they are based on the sacredness of unconditional aloha that connects the multi-generational family in our dwelling.

C&R: Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, writes: “At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth–in other words, to silence.” Where is your head, and your heart, in relation to the rhetoric, to our habits, and to the silence that falls when the hard truths of calamity come into focus?

THB: I think about the importance of our stories and the maintenance of knowledge from one generation to the next so that we, indigenous peoples, are not erased. As long as we hold on to our stories, we will maintain and implement our knowledge systems. We cannot fall to this calamity if we know where we come from.

C&R: What does solidarity mean to you? In your work?

THB:

This question calls lyrics from the song All Hawai‘i Stand Together to mind. The contemporary anthem composed by Kanaka Maoli poet Liko Martin and Kanaka Maoli musician Dennis Pavao unites our community through a song of solidarity.

Hawai‘iloa, kūlike kākou,      

Kūpa‘a me ka lōkahi ē,          

‘Onipa‘a kākou, ‘onipa‘a kākou,

A lanakila nā kini ē,

E ola, e ola nā kini ē

The lyrics above illustrate what solidarity means to me. To stand together, to be steadfast, which is the path to liberation. It also reminds us that it is the collective that makes us strong; our community/family defines us. The role we play in our family/community is integral to our identity. The understanding that each of us contribute to the collective informs our Hawaiian theatre pedagogy. Unity/solidarity brings us together and has the ability to create change in our contemporary decolonization processes.

C&R: What/who have you read, seen or listened to recently that really blew you away?

THB: I recently watched an HBO documentary entitled, After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News (2020), that infuriated me. It blew my mind to see the manipulation of the media and the ignorance of the American public. How is it that people are so easily swayed?

C&R: Does truth still matter in a “post-truth” age? What role does art play in relation to the truth?

THB: Truth matters more than ever now. Today as artists we must be vigilant in our work to hold a mirror to society so that we challenge our community/audience members to identify and interrogate falsehoods promulgated in all aspects of society. We must ask who stands to gain from a particular propaganda and how does this discourse affect our communities. Let’s use our art to engage and empower a community of critical thought.

C&R: There is no shortage of apocalyptic thinking these days. But what if we could fill the future with visions of light instead? There is a Sikh prayer that asks, “what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” Seeing this dark moment instead as the prelude to a rebirth of sorts, what would the world look like in 50 years if you could imagine and bring that future into being?

THB: Drawing knowledge and guidance from our mo‘olelo (stories/history) we understand that times of hulihia (upheaval) are times for rebirth, regeneration, reframing, and most of all creativity. It is clear that we as a community are traversing through a time of hulihia and great change will come from it. I believe that this situation forces us to rethink our life and practices, our relationship to one another, and our relationship to our environment. My hope is that as we reframe, we will prioritize aloha for our family, friends, and ‘āina (land/earth) over capital gain. The world needs more aloha and that is what I’d like to project forward into the next 50 years.

Mural on the Plaza Centenario from Pangea’s Lake Street Arts! Program. Mural created by Goodspace Murals. Photo by Meena Natarajan.

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