HONOLULU (KHON2) — No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

This inscription aboard Hōkūleʻa is what director Mark Branner hopes audiences will take away from his production Eddie Wen’ Go: The Story of the Upside-Down Canoe. It will be the first in-person show at Kennedy Theatre in nearly two years.

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Eddie Wen’ Go is adapted from the book by Marion Lyman-Mersereau that tells the story of Hawaii waterman Eddie Aikau on the 1978 Hōkūlea voyage. The play is told by imaginary sea creatures who watch from below as the canoe capsized and Aikau went get help.

“It is a tribute to Aikau that honors the truth of his final act of courage, the 1978 rescue attempt, while also offering hope and inspiration,” said Christine Lamborn, Operations Coordinator at Kennedy Theatre.

The audience will hear about Aikau’s life of service to others, including how he became the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay where he saved over 500 lives.

“Because the story of a local hero would best be shared in a community setting, the decision was made to wait for the possibility of live audiences, rather than stream the production last season,” said Lamborn.

Auditions for this play were supposed to begin in May 2020, with production planned for September. That all changed when COVID shutdowns began in March. Instead, the theatre offered a series of Zoom shorts to prepare for this year’s live production.

For Branner, waiting to put this production in front of a live audience is worth it. He’s excited to share the story with everyone, while being able to see and hear their reactions.

“There is nothing quite like ‘being in the room’ for a piece of live theatre,” said Branner. “It is a completely different atmosphere than sitting in front of your computer screen.”

“There’s something about live theatre that a camera lens or screen can’t quite capture,” Lamborn added.

The last in-person show for Kennedy Theatre was the dance production Kaleidoscope, which had its final day on March 1, 2020 in the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre. However, the last in-person show on the Kennedy Theatre Mainstage was The Last King of Bali, which had its final show on Feb. 16, 2020.

After three semesters of completely virtual productions, the theatre is finally transitioning back to having a live audience. Several cast members took Branner’s giant puppetry course last fall in anticipation of the production, which he says can be physically demanding.

“One of the puppets (Tutu Kane) takes five puppeteers to operate,” Branner explained. “The person holding the head must move, speak, and give life to some solid pieces of foam and wood, all while holding this head aloft for about an hour.”

He says this can get very taxing, especially if the whale has to swim quickly and turn. All of the puppeteers are holding their puppets while having to speak, run, and dance for an extended time.

“This goes far beyond typical acting where you play the character in your own face and body,” said Branner. “Here, you give life to an inanimate object and attempt to imbue it with life and character.”

When Eddie Wen’ Go first premiered at the Hawaii Theatre Center in 2014, it sold out all five performances. It was a huge success that prompted Branner and the playwright to bring this story back to audiences.

“It is important to tell this story well for a new generation of Hawaii. It has been over eight years since that initial production, so children who were in the fourth or fifth grade may now be graduating high school,” said Branner. “My daughter was barely one at the time. Now she’s at the perfect age to be introduced to the Eddie story in such a unique and creative way.”

Branner hopes the story of Eddie will inspire young people.

At the end of the play, one of the characters says,  “…dat makes me feel all kine ha’aheo – proud laidat!” To which Tutu responds, “And you should feel ha’aheo, Manō, Eddie is a part of your ʻohana and he’s an inspiration to us all!”

“His acts of service and bravery are truly inspirational,” said Branner. “And this is a story of Hawaii and we take pride in honoring this local hero.”

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The play takes place from Jan. 28 to Feb. 6. Ticket prices range from $8 to $20.