Paniolo Play Honors Hawaiian Cowboy Legacy with Songs and Stories

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Actor Moses Goods’ original two-man play, PANIOLO Stories and Songs from the Hawaiian Cowboy, made its Big Island debut last Friday at the Hilo Palace theatre. The play features Goods, who wrote and stars in it, and Kapono Nāʻiliʻili, a professional full-time traveling musician. Over the course of an hour, the two actors weave together the history of the Paniolo in a variety of dramatic skits and heartfelt songs. Starting with Captain George Vancouver’s gift to King Kamehameha of six cows and a bull in 1793, Goods and Nāʻiliʻili conclude with a present-day story, told through the voice of a young boy watching a paniolo parade in Honolulu.

Goods has been involved with theatre for about 20 years now. Born and raised on Maui, Goods got started in high school, and then decided to major in theatre in college. Since then, he has traveled nationally and internationally, performing his original work to a wide range of audiences. His body of work ranges from full-length plays to theatrical storytelling pieces, most of which are strongly rooted in Native Hawaiian culture, such as Duke and presently Paniolo, Stories and Songs of the Hawaiian Cowboy.

The genesis for this play began in 2018 when Goods traveled to the Big Island and interviewed Dr. Billy Bergin, a longtime Parker Ranch vet, and paniolo historian, as well as Waimea community residents like Penny O’Toole. In a pre-show interview, Goods explained the importance of documenting the paniolo history in his play. “It is a bit of a dying culture and people don’t really understand to the full extent what the culture means to Hawaii in general. I, for one, wanted to know more about a culture that I knew about, but didn’t necessarily grow up in.”

Dressed as two Tejas vaqueros (cowboys), Goods and Nāʻiliʻili explained to the audience that after sixty years, King Kamehameha III now had 40,000 wild cattle roaming the island, destroying native plants and gardens. On a trip to California, Kamehameha brought back a group of tough and rugged vaqueros to teach the Hawaiian people how to handle their cattle dilemma. As the vaqueros shared roping and riding techniques, the Hawaiians, in an exchange of cultures, taught them their traditional fishing skills and how to paddle a canoe. Not long after the paniolo tradition started, Californians and Texans started to learn from them as well, and that’s when the U.S. cowboy tradition began.

Goods, a towering figure with a deep commanding James Earl Jones-like voice, told a spooky campfire story about the one-handed paniolo who was known as Eban “Rawhide Ben” Low. Many of the segments in the play, like this one, were embellished by authentic sound effects – gates opening at a rodeo, horses rapidly approaching and cranky cattle. There were also stunning visuals (both historic footage/stills and fictional), displayed on a large screen behind the actors. At times the visuals were broken up into three separate boxes, each connecting to the main story, and flawlessly synced to the live narration on stage.

Kapono Nāʻiliʻili

One of the most thrilling stories in the play took place in 1908, when Ikua Purdy won the World Steer Roping Championship in Wyoming, by roping, throwing, and tying a steer in 56 seconds! Goods and Nāʻiliʻili played ukulele and guitar in a song called “Waiomina (Wyoming),” that tells all about the event. Using clever, but simple costuming and props – big hats, boots, chaps, and bandanas, the two actors recreated what it may have been like at the 1908 Championship. Today, a beautiful large bronze statue honors Purdy in Waimea (on the Big island) and depicts him roping a steer.

The final segment in Paniolo is a touching present day tale of a young boy watching the Aloha Parade in Honolulu. Fascinated by the lei-decorated fire trucks, and hula dancers trying to maintain their balance on the back of a flat-bed truck, the young boy turns his attention to the majestic Pā’ū Queen in the parade, and the way she elegantly waves to the crowd. When the boy tries to imitate the parade queen at home, he’s ridiculed by his brothers and beaten by his father for this feminine-like behavior. The tense family situation is finally resolved when everyone recognized that all players had importance in the social fabric.

Moses Goods

With the exception of the final song, Sol K. Bright’s “Hawaiian Cowboy,” Goods and Nāʻiliʻili composed the other four tunes in the play.

Paniolo, Stories and Songs of the Hawaiian Cowboy premiered at Honolulu’s Tenney Theatre on October 29, 2018, and played for 10,000 people in its monthlong run. It deserves a return performance or two here on the Big Island. Most fitting would be the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea, and the Honoka’a People’s Theatre, perhaps during the town’s annual Western Week celebration. Goods is currently planning an upcoming performance of this play at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.

In October, Goods will be touring New England with a play titled My Name is ‘Ōpūkaha’ia. It’s a 30-minute one-man-show that commemorates the life of Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia. Ōpūkahaʻia was one of the first native Hawaiians to become a Christian, inspiring American Protestant missionaries to come to the islands during the 19th century. He is credited with starting Hawaii’s conversion to Christianity.

To find out more about Good’s current work, be sure to visit his website.


Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the managing editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby

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