Drawing Lili’u

by Lynda Crawford
with drawings by Ellen Bellerose

Characters (3 women)
NINA, an artist, haole, 40s+
KAHLIA, museum curator, Hawaiian, 30s; doubles as HULA DANCER

(NINA, an artist, is working on a drawing. Music to “Aloha Oe”as she works. After a moment, NINA disfigures her drawing and sets it down amidst several other similarly disfigured attempts. There is a knock at the door.  NINA lets KAHLIA in. THEY hug. KAHLIA looks at the art around NINA’s studio, displaying her various drawings of Hawaiian monarchy.)

KAHLIA   Oh Nina!  You do them justice.

NINA   From you, that means a lot.

KAHLIA   We’re so happy to have your work in the Museum.

NINA   Mahalo. I’m honored to be there.

KAHLIA   And how is the last one coming? Lili’uokalani. The centerpiece of the exhibit.  I’m excited to see her.

(NINA shows KAHLIA canvases with half starts and disfigurations)

NINA   Well, here she is . . . or isn’t.

KAHLIA   I don’t understand.

NINA   Over thirty attempts and none of them work. That’s why I asked you here. Your family had connections to the royal line, right?

KAHLIA   On my mother’s side. She’s a direct descendent.

NINA   Well maybe you can give me some insight. I mean, I’ve studied her photographs, I listen to her music . . . but when I go to draw her, it’s as if something is stopping me. And I can’t help thinking, maybe she doesn’t want me to draw her.

KAHLIA   Why would that be?

NINA   Maybe because I’m a haole?

KAHLIA   No, of course not. She married a white man. She was never like that.

NINA   Well then, what? I get close, I see her clearly in my mind, and then I just lose her.  I’ve never experienced this before. Do you think it could be that her spirit is broken, by what happened to her? And that’s why I can’t connect with her?

KAHLIA   Her spirit was never broken. You need to read her book.

NINA   I have.

KAHLIA   Then you should know, her spirit remained strong even during her imprisonment. What broke was her heart.

NINA   Well, I should be able to relate to that. (Beat.) So why can’t I reach her?

KAHLIA   Have you asked her?

NINA   I’m not sure I understand what you mean—

KAHLIA   It can’t hurt. Close your eyes and ask. And wait for an answer.

NINA   Why would she talk to me?

KAHLIA   Why wouldn’t she? She loved artists.

NINA   Yes, but, I’m—I’m kind of a failure as an artist as far as she’s concerned. Maybe I should give up on this one.

KAHLIA   Lili’u never gave up. You shouldn’t either. Besides, having her in the collection is kind of essential.  We couldn’t go forward without it.

(KAHLIA exits. NINA steps toward a blank canvas. )

NINA   (Closing her eyes) Oh dear Queen, what is getting in the way of my seeing you?

(Without NINA noticing, Lili’u enters)

LILI’U   Maybe it’s the way you are seeing me . . .

NINA    (Startled) What’s this?! You’re here.

LILI’U   You called me.

NINA   Uh. I guess I did. I just didn’t expect to really hear from you. Or see you.

LILI’U   It seemed expedient. I think the problem may be your perception of me—as a victim, a broken woman.

NINA   Yes, but after what you went through—

LILI’U   Life. I went through life. Are you one of those who’s had a charmed existence?

NINA   No. Not at all.

LILI’U   Well, my imprisonment, all of that, it doesn’t define me.

NINA   No. You’re right.

LILI’U   How do you see me now? In front of you?

NINA   Beautiful. Strong.

LILI’U   And free.

NINA   Because in death you are finally free. I get it.

LILI’U   No. You don’t get it. I have always been free. I knew it even if they didn’t. They took my freedom but still I was free. In here. And they took our land but still it is our land. It will always remain so. I could sit for you if you like.

NINA   I must be dreaming.

LILI’U   Isn’t that what the imagination is for? Crossing barriers. (SHE sits.) Here okay?

NINA   Yes. Thank you!

(NINA starts to sketch her.)

NINA   I hope I don’t disappoint you.

LILI’U   Oh, worrying about that’s probably getting in your way too.

NINA   Yes but, it’s you! Lili’uokalani—

LILI’U   Please—Lili’u is fine. I prefer it.

NINA   Lili’u—the Queen—it has to be good.

LILI’U   And what does that mean—good? A strong likeness?  (Looking around) You are very adept. I can see that. I love them all, but Bernice is particularly striking. She was always so beautiful.

princess-pauahi(Portrait of Bernice—Princess Pauahi—by Ellen Bellerose)

NINA   Thank you. But it’s not about being technically adept. I have to be able to see into you and convey more than your likeness.

LILI’U   My soul?

NINA   Yes, I guess.

LILI’U   The missionaries always talked of soul. Then they stole my land.

NINA   I’m surprised you say that. From what I’ve read, you still remained very religious.

LILI’U   Yes.

NINA   You didn’t question your faith because of what happened?

LILI’U   My faith in man, yes. Not in God.  Do you have faith?

NINA   I don’t know. Maybe in more of a great spirit kind of way. Kindness. Peace. Love.

LILI’U   The basis for all religion.

NINA   If it is, they’ve lost their way.  I’m more comfortable with the law of aloha.

LILI’U   Respect, kindness, cooperation.

NINA   Yeah. I’ll go with that.  (Not pleased with her work.) Damn. Let me try something else.

(Puts down the canvas and picks up another.)

LILI’U   What’s wrong?

NINA   Something is still stopping me. Even with you sitting right in front of me. If it’s not you, what is it?

LILI’U   Maybe it’s you.

NINA   Me? Why?

LILI’U   Maybe something about me scares you. Perhaps you can’t bear to see the lie.

NINA   What lie?

LILI’U   Do you consider yourself Hawaiian?

NINA   Not native Hawaiian. But after thirty-three years here, yeah, I guess I do.

LILI’U   And American?

NINA   Of course.

LILI’U   That’s where we differ?

NINA   I can understand that.

LILI’U   I’m not saying you are not welcome. We’ve always been a friendly nation. But know where you are.

NINA   So you think the monarchy should be restored—

LILI’U   It’s not about the monarchy. Or me. It’s about what is pono.

NINA   Yes. But . . . democracy is the way now—the will of the people.

LILI’U   They ignored the will of the people when it was our people; ignored by your President McKinley and the US congress. Promises were made and broken.

NINA   But so much has happened since then—

LILI’U   And maybe this is why you are more comfortable with a romantic vision of the imprisoned queen whose throne was taken away from her a century ago, but who has nothing to do with anything today.

NINA   If this is who you are, I want to see it. And show it. But how can I be sure. I mean, how can I presume to know what you would say? I am just imagining you sitting here—imagining this whole conversation. It is from me, not you.

LILI’U   Okay. So draw me. As you think I am—forever wronged, forever silenced. A failure.

NINA   I can’t. But . . .

LILI’U   What?  (NINA hesitates) Speak up.

NINA   In a way . . . you were . . . a failure. You never succeeded in getting Hawaii back.  (Beat.) Why did you agree to it . . . to signing away the throne?

LILI’U   There could only be one reason: to save the lives of those who stood with me, who were to be hanged. For myself, I would have chosen death. But I couldn’t sacrifice their lives. I could never abandon my people. (A few beats.) You want to see into me, into my soul? All right: Draw the sea. Start there. I’m serious. Go ahead.

(Nina, unsure, starts to follow her direction. Sound of a chant by Lili’uokalani might come up in background.)

LILI’U   And the mountains. Mauna a Wakea. Haleakalā.

(HULA DANCER enters, interpreting her words.)

LILI’U   That’s where I am.

NINA   (To herself)  Is this really happening?

LILI’U   In every hula. Every flower and lei. In our beloved taro. The call of the nene. Our keiki at play. In every proud Hawaiian. Every mele. Every aloha. Our culture is alive and getting stronger.

(NINA has stopped drawing. LILI’U notices and signals for music to stop and HULA DANCER exits.)

LILI’U   What’s wrong?

NINA   You were not the failure. It was my failure to see.

LILI’U   It’s not just you. It’s how the world sees me. But maybe you were drawn to that because . . . that’s how you see yourself too. As a failure.  It might be time for a self-portrait, Nina. To see you more clearly.

NINA   But . . . I have failed. Many times. And I’m not even talking about art. In other ways, even more important. In finding love.

LILI’U   Perhaps just not yet.

NINA   I don’t have your patience.  I’ve tried many times but it just . . . it never took. So here I am now. Alone. No children. No one.

LILI’U   Maybe the problem is the way you see love. I wasn’t so lucky in that area either. No children of my own. My husband had a child with someone else.  So after he died, I adopted the boy. And I have two other hānai children as well. The heart is a mystery. Perhaps, for us, love is not in the classical sense.  I have poured my love into my country. You might consider your drawings your children.

NINA   I do.

LILI’U   And you seem to have adopted us, the Hawaiian monarchy as well. Why is that?

NINA   I guess it’s my way of paying respect to you. Cause maybe, underneath, we all know it was wrong, what happened.

(A few beats.)

LILI’U   Many mahalos, Nina, for keeping us visible . . . (Admiring her portrait, before exiting) I like it. Fierce. You finally broke through.

NINA   No.  It was you who . . . (Turning to realize LILI’U is gone.) . . . broke through to me. Mahalo . . . dear Queen.  Aloha.

(NINA looks at her drawing and we see her reaction to it. Music up to “Song for Lili’u” by Henry Kapono or similar. END of PLAY.)

queen-liliuokalani(Portrait of Queen Lili’uokalani by Ellen Bellerose.)


See more of Ellen Bellerose’s pencil portraits of Hawaiian monarchy here: http://www.mauipencilportraits.com/prints/faces-of-hawaii

  1. Jon Pierson says:

    Absolutely Beautiful. Ellen’s artwork is magnificent.


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