"Some Things... Are Just Meant to Be"

Retiring drama professor reminisces on time at UH Hilo

Editor-in-Chief Brian Wild
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Lough and Jackie Pualani Johnson

Jacquelyn Paulani Johnson

Sitting patiently in her office as we arrive, drama professor Jacquelyn “Jackie” Pualani Johnson greets me and my photographer, Liz. The three of us begin talking story; we eventually walk out into the hallway, go past the stage, and outside the Performing Arts Center (PAC). It’s a warm, mellow day in Hilo; Jackie and I both comment on how lovely the weather has been.

Throughout my academic career, I, like most students, have always done my best to show respect to my teachers, being sure to only address them how they see fit. And though she is entitled to the rank of “Professor Johnson,” Jackie is not one for such pomp and formality. Her clear, well-polished voice and elegant, cosmopolitan style belie the humility of a down-to-earth local, referred to by friends, colleagues, and students alike as “Aunty” or “‘Anake.”

As a student of hers for nearly four years, I was eager to connect with her and ask some questions about her impending departure from UH Hilo.

Where it all started…

As so many of Jackie’s fans, old and new, will agree, the repertoire she has cultivated throughout her tenure as a theatre practitioner is profoundly multicultural, and proudly local. How, I asked Jackie, did your upbringing in Hilo, and your education beyond, inform your choices as an artist?

“I had the good fortune of being at my grandfather’s knee when he played the autoharp, harmonica, and kept rhythm with spoons, all at once! Grandpa Medeiros had the harmonica was on a wire holder resting on his shoulders so his hands could be free to strum the autoharp in his lap, all the while holding two spoons backwards to tap on his knee, which he had propped up on whatever was handy. So I listened to the songs about Pele that he wrote. My Mom and Dad sang a lot, too,” Jackie said.

“We loved performing for the family as kids, too, at each and every family party. My brother and two sisters and I would use a lava lamp as though it was a spot light and we sang and danced for all the grownups. Even when driving around Hilo or to Kona to visit our hānai cousins on the weekend, we’d just sing in the car for the hours it took to our destination. Music was everywhere.”

Once Jackie matured into adolescence, she encountered a new artistic force: Up with People (UWP), an educational group founded in the 1960s geared towards recruiting youth artists.

“In my freshman year of high school, the Up with People folks came to town and inspired a few community leaders to create a Hilo group, dubbed “Sing Out Hilo,”” Jackie said. From there, all it took was a kindly musician and some encouragement to further Jackie’s interest in the arts.

“Clarence Waipa of Keaukaha became the music director and began teaching at St. Joseph’s High. He changed my life by asking me to sing solos with Sing Out Hilo and by singing in his high school choir, “The Cardinal Singers.” It was like a musical ‘ohana, with strong, supportive leaders – Paul Tallett, Dirk Smith, Alexa Griffin, Tom Hikiji, my Aunty Patsy Medeiros, among a few – who challenged us in every way… those Sing Out Hilo friends are still dear to my heart today. Back then, Stan Randolph and United Airlines supported the group and we Sing Out kids performed year-round!” Jackie said.

Another group that spurred Jackie to be a proactive member of the arts scene were the longstanding theatre group in town, the Hilo Community Players (HCP).

“[They] were also nestled in The Shack, a tumble-down building at the side of the Hilo Armory. I got involved in their productions during high school, getting a taste of what it’s like to do theatre on a shoe string budget, but with loads of dedicated people. It was good in-the-trenches training,” Jackie said.

The HCP also exposed Jackie to some big names. “I recall that several HCP actors took on small roles when the Jaycees brought three theatre productions to town with big names like Milton Berle, Edward Albert, Jr., and June Lockhart. That was stupendous! The only problem back then was that the Performing Arts Center was just a stage with seating—no backstage. So these famous folks had to jump from a backstage door to get to port-a-potties parked behind the building! Aue!”

From student to teacher…

“I have to begin by saying that some things, I believe, are just meant to be. I returned home from the University of Colorado after earning my M.A. in theatre and the UH Hilo Theater was being renovated from an auditorium into a proscenium theatre, complete with a full-equipped stage house, scenery and costume shops.”

Before her teaching career took off, Jackie found another mentor, Harold Miura, an electrical engineer in Hilo. “I worked [for Harold] for about a year, doing secretarial tasks, but also reconnecting with the Hilo Community Players as their business manager and co-founder of Shakespeare in Kalākaua Park.”

Indeed, Jackie has been with Hilo’s Shakespeare in the Park since the beginning.

“I directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”” the first play at the park, “when I was pregnant with my first daughter, Kaihāwanawana, followed by “The Tempest,” finally appearing as Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” over the course of the first three summers,” she said. Her boss, Mr. Miura, provided his help with ensuring safe lighting for the performances in the park. “I’ll always be indebted to him for that TLC,” Jackie said.

To Jackie’s further delight, the shows received a warm reception. “Hundreds of Hilo people turned out for the productions, and still do today, to support the longest-running Shakespeare festival in the State of Hawaiʻi,” she said.

Soon, her big break happened – the university was hiring. “When the “auditorium” at UH Hilo was completed, I applied for the job, and lo-and-behold, the committee hired a green 25-year old to run the multi-million dollar facility! I was the instructor and theatre manager, who taught classes, directed shows, built sets, did lighting and costumes – everything that fell under the task I had been given, i.e., “build a theatre program,”” Jackie said.

Among her stalwart allies in the program was “Boss Man” and longtime music instructor Ken Staton, who co-starred with Jackie in local productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Sweeney Todd,” among others.

The early years at UH Hilo…

With a teaching job at UH Hilo secured, Jackie’s plan to expand the performing arts’ profile in the community was inspired by the work of individuals like her old music director, Mr. Waipa.

“When I took on the UH Hilo job, I wanted to follow in Mr. Waipa’s footsteps and be the best teacher I could be. He was personable and hardworking and those were the qualities I tried to emulate. We always laughed a great deal while we spend countless hours on programming or learning repertoire. His sense of humor made the hard work seem effortless. He showed me the great joy and sense of accomplishment that came from performing well, so that became my approach as a drama instructor,” Jackie explained.

In addition to hands-on learning while in Hilo, Jackie noted that her time on the mainland was well-spent. “I was fortunate to have received what might be called “a generalist” education at the University of Colorado. The work I did there as an undergraduate and as a master’s degree student was very hands-on, so I took away skills, for instance, from a six-month tour of Wyoming and Colorado with the Colorado Caravan. We wrote scripts, acted, provided music and percussion, built scenery and costumes, and learned developmental exercises to use with audience members following performances,” she recalled.

Ultimately, her work in Colorado paid off. “All that training gave me the edge when I was brought on at UH Hilo. I was ready. Best of all, I was in my beloved Hilo,” she said.

The biggest highlights…

“Hmmmm… so many highlights,” Jackie thought aloud.

“Perhaps my Valentine to Hilo is the fondest memory.” Her Valentine, of course, refers to Hilo: Da Musical, a play she wrote a few years ago while on sabbatical. Jackie served as director of the show, and was there when it made its PAC debut in 2015.

The show required “a cast that understood local idiosyncrasies and were good at Pidgin. Any and everything that could be celebrated – or mocked – about life in Hilo was included in that script,” Jackie said.

“It started with the abduction of a local boy by aliens who needed to find out about life in Hilo. After they probed his malasada-filled stomach, the story unfolded, with the family searching here and yond for their loved one. The show visited Hilo Bay, ‘Imiloa, a local radio station, a multi-lingual restaurant – named Do-Re-Mi-Pho, of course! – and featured a coqui ballet, and a cameo by Madame Pele herself,” she continued.

For this play in particular, Jackie received a good deal of inspiration from her daughters and grandchildren. “I used the names of all my mo’opuna, in the script and two of my daughters, Malu and Hailionaonaokekupuna, appeared in leads. Daughter Kaihāwanawana was my sounding board – I passed ideas by her as she cared for my four Coloma grandchildren, Braeden Alaka’i, Haez Kailikoa, Zaen Koapaka, and Saede Kapualani – named after me! Malu’s daughter, Lila Sophia Makaaoloa, cheered us on from the audience. We also have a little angel mo’opuna, Aeden Koapaka, who resides in heaven,” Jackie explained.

The Challenges…

Have there been any low points? What were some of the most challenging times for you in these 38 years?

As fun as it may be to find oneself immersed in the world of art for a living, there are bound to be times that test one’s resolve. So I asked Jackie about any challenges she remembers that were especially trying.

She recalls her first twenty years at UH Hilo, saying that while there was genuine support for her efforts to build a lasting theatre community in Hilo, it required a great deal of patience.

“I so wanted Hilo to choose to come to the theatre among the list of things-to-do in Hilo-nei. In fact, I recall saying in the first interview I ever did for the Hawai’i Tribune Herald, that I wanted people to choose the theatre as much as they chose to go bowling!,” she joked.

“Eventually, my dear colleague, Larry Joseph, was brought on as the technical director of the theatre, then segued into the theatre manager, a job he held for 24 years. After a few years of working as a team, Rob Abe was hired as a technician – well, he was nearly snitched off a plane when he was here visiting his local Abe family,” she added. Abe is still with UH Hilo.

Then an idea came about that, in Jackie’s eyes, made the UH Hilo performing arts department into what it is today. “After a few years, Larry proposed that our program always include a production that emphasized Hawai’i and the Pacific each year. That was a major turning point,” she said.

Despite these and other innovations, the new environment was slowly accepted. “Audiences for local plays tended to be quite small in the beginning. There were social changes, too, that kept people away, such as the closing of the plantations on the island. So many people were trying to redefine their lives after more than a century of plantation existence. But as time and familiarity grew, so did numbers in the audience – and local folks became as interested in their stories coming to life as we were in presenting those tales,” Jackie said.

The connection to local issues was especially palpable, given the shift in attitudes towards promoting Hawaiian culture.

“When my children were enrolled in Hawaiian Language Immersion preschool, Pūnana Leo, another turning point happened. Immersion families were urged to learn our native language along with the keiki, and that became a true blessing. To this day, I am so appreciative of the founding kumu at UH Hilo who selflessly brought the Hawaiian language to where it is today, thriving in many households and heard more and more on the streets of Hilo. With the language as an impetus, I dabbled in directing plays that honored ka loina Hawai’i, our culture, and often featured Hawaiian language. It became the most gratifying work I’ve ever done and led, later in my career, to performing living history that focuses on the Hawaiian monarchy,” Jackie said.

Thus, another chapter in Jackie’s artistic career had taken off; she subsequently found herself captivated by historical narratives. Among them was Hawaiʻi’s tenuous transition from independent kingdom to U.S. territory.

“To this day, I am honored to create our last Queen, Lili’uokalani, in several one-women shows that range from her abdication, to her relationship to her hānai children, and to her support of the Buddhist Church in Hawai’i in the early 1900s. All it took to start this ball rolling was a friendly phone call from Reverend Moki Hino of Holy Apostles Church in Hilo, back in 2012, asking if I’d be interested in writing a play about Queen Emma for the sesquicentennial of the Episcopal Church,” Jackie explained.

Even as Jackie begins to enter the post-UH Hilo period of life, telling such stories continues to motivate her as a kumu and an artist.

“Oral histories are the kind of work I wish to continue doing in retirement. There is something so powerful in bringing our true histories and historical figures to the stage, to relive their good works, their struggles, their humanity,” she said.

How the next generation of artists can grow and thrive in Hawaiʻi…

It may be true that, in her decades-long career of performing arts and community outreach, Jackie has enjoyed the good fortune of building and maintaining relationships with so many people in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere. But for those who have yet to be in Jackie’s presence, what should they do? In 20 or 30 years down the road – when Jackie might seem like an elusive, distant memory to a younger audience – what will become of UH Hilo’s next lineup of actors, playwrights, directors, and technicians?

In Jackie’s view, the training required for one to be a proficient practitioner of performing arts can be found right on this island. “UH Hilo is a place where students really count. Faculty want to know each students’ strengths and then work tirelessly to uncover areas that each student needs to develop. Because of this strong, personal interest, students thrive in what’s near to a one-on-one mentorship, across the board,” she said.

“In our drama program, we don’t hesitate to have high expectations and we counter those with opportunities for students to prove themselves. When we guide students to positions of leadership, we treat them like colleagues. We don’t stop training them, but we make sure they aspire to their full potentials once that training has kicked in,” she added.

“I think of countless students who rose in the ranks, starting modestly, but ending as soloists, lead actors, choreographers, directors, stage managers, classroom facilitators, costume and lighting specialists, makeup artists, etc., etc. Here you get the theory and the hands-on, so that when it is time to step through the puka, a UH Hilo performing arts student isn’t terrified; rather the student is ready. We try, every step of the way, to show them how it’s been done for centuries, but we also give them permission to soar, to experiment with new ideas and applications; to find their own paths,” Jackie explained.

“And when they get in touch and let us know how they’re going, we’re piha – full of contentment – knowing we did our best to guide them and that they hold dear the experiences and new discoveries uncovered at UH Hilo.”