UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen: Justina Mattos, theater arts educator extraordinaire

Assistant Professor Justina Mattos’s passion about educating students—from grade school to university—has brought her recognition from the Chancellor’s Executive Council as a UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen.

By Leah Sherwood.
This post is part of a series on Quintessential University Citizens at UH Hilo. The honorees were chosen by members of the Chancellor’s Executive Council and others during the first months after Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s arrival at the university in July 2019.

Justina Mattos
Justina Mattos. Photo credit: Tracy Wright Corvo.

Justina Mattos, assistant professor of drama and performing arts and an alumna of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, grew up attending public schools on O‘ahu and in Hilo. She remembers having more access to the arts in school than she sees now.

“We got to paint, play with clay, and learned music in our public elementary school,” says Mattos. “Even so, as a young child I didn’t know what theater was, or that it even existed.”

Mattos received her bachelor of arts in liberal studies with an emphasis in theatre from UH Hilo, her master of arts in theatre from the University of Oregon, and her doctor of philosophy in theater from UH Mānoa. Today, not only is she teaching at UH Hilo but she also is working to ensure that local schoolchildren benefit from theater arts. Her passion about educating students—from grade school to university—has brought her recognition from the Chancellor’s Executive Council as a UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen.

“In the performing arts department we are always reaching out to the community,” says Mattos. “Not just through the productions we do here on campus, but also through our classes that go out to the schools. Here in our rural communities, we reach out to some of the most underserved students in our state through their afterschool programs.”

Mattos says it’s valuable for school children to be exposed to theater. In looking for more opportunities to reach out to children in local schools, she decided to add a touring element to her Acting Troupe (DRAM 421) class. Mattos directed performances of three popular children’s plays in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) in 2018. Students taking the course performed the plays, which Mattos had translated from their English versions into Hawaiian language. The performances took place at the Hilo Public Library and five Hilo elementary schools during the spring 2018 semester.

The touring production was titled ‘Ekolu: Three Plays for nā Keiki. The three plays were “Nā Kao Pūkalakī ‘Ekolu (The Three Gruff Goats)”; “Nā Pua‘a Li‘ili‘i ‘Ekolu (The Three Little Pigs)”; and “Nā ‘Iole Makapō ‘Ekolu (The Three Blindfolded Mice).”

The characters in the plays spoke their lines in the Hawaiian language, while a narrator translated for the audience in Hawaiian Creole English, commonly called pidgin.

“I decided to tell these familiar stories with a pidgin-speaking narrator in order to make the Hawaiian language dialogue more accessible to the students,” says Mattos. “It was an experiment for us to see how much Hawaiian language was retained by the elementary school students that we performed for and how much was retained by the UH Hilo college-age performers, most of whom had no background in the Hawaiian language.”

“It’s great to be able to provide this type of enrichment for the kids,” says Mattos. “For them to be treated to a performance, and learn something in the process, it’s wonderful. And the kids are such engaged, enthusiastic audiences.”

The college students in the troupe benefit as well. “It’s a lot of work for the actors who go out and do it, but it’s very rewarding emotionally,” explains the professor. “Also, I know from experience that these theater classes make students more confident, empathetic, responsible, and communicative.”

This semester’s performance is focused on some of the endangered animals of Hawai‘i. “Our new play is called Lele, which means to fly. It’s about some of the endemic Hawaiian animal species that fly at night,” says the director.

Pursuing her emphasis on ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, Mattos also has an informal arrangement with Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani, the College of Hawaiian Language.

“I try to encourage their Hawaiian language students to enroll in Acting Troupe (DRAM 421), for hands-on practice using the language in a theatrical context,” says Mattos. “I would love to have a more formal partnership with Ka Haka ‘Ula, either using this class, or creating a new course that is cross-listed between our departments.”

In fact, she hopes to establish more cross-listed classes with other departments.

“I have a couple of courses that are cross-listed with English, and I have created a course called Drama of Hawai‘i and the Pacific that is cross-listed with sociology,” says Mattos. “I also have a Performance Education course cross-listed with communications that I want to revive, using theater in museum settings for the public. And I have a course called Lyric Theatre, which explores American musical theater with each play representative of a different era in American history. I am thinking about approaching the history department to see if they might be interested in cross-listing that.”

Mattos believes that every incoming freshman at UH Hilo could use a little theater training to help them cope with the new stresses of university life.

“They are coming into a new phase in life and a new environment where they don’t know anybody,” says Mattos. “Some don’t even know themselves very well, and don’t know what they want to do with their life. A beginning acting class provides them with opportunities for self-reflection and helps them learn about other people by stepping into their shoes. Best of all, they often forge strong friendships that can help them navigate those challenging years of early adulthood.”

See more UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizens.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

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