Urbanesia: Four Pasifika Plays
Courtney Sina Meredith, Vela Manusaute, Victor Rodger, Oscar Kightley, David Fane, Nathaniel Lees
Strange Resting Places
Paolo Rotondo and Rob Mokaraka
In 2012, nearing 40 years old, Playmarket published six Maori and Pasifika plays in two volumes, bringing the total of its New Zealand Play Series to 15 volumes since 2007: a prodigious output, considering many of the volumes contain two or more – in the case of No.8 Wire, eight – works by an even larger number of authors. My count is 36 playscripts in five years. Although women writers are a minority in the series, that is probably because the Women’s Play Press and The Play Press had by 2007 published a number of pieces by Pakeha women and – significantly, in terms of the 2012 emphasis on Maori and Pasifika work – by Makerita Urale (Frangipani Perfume) and Dianna Fuemana (Mapaki). The latter plays, published in tandem in 2004, were so popular they had to be reprinted three years on.
In introducing the Urale/Fuemana volume for the Play Press, David O’Donnell (also New Zealand Play Series Editor) noted the “eruption” of writing by Pacific Island women since the late 1990s. But although he describes how Frangipani Perfume “broke new ground” in 1997 as the first Pasifika play written by a woman for an all-women cast, he also points out that its director, Erolia Ifopo, had some years earlier co-founded Pacific Underground, a training-ground for both women and men, including David Fane and Oscar Kightley who later formed the (all-male) Naked Samoans. From the early 1980s, group-based shows were the real trail-blazers for both Maori and Pasifika theatre. The “eruption” of individually scripted plays didn’t happen in a vacuum.
The Pasifika volume’s title, Urbanesia, is taken from Rushing Dolls, the debut play of Courtney Sina Meredith, which she says “relies heavily on the theatre audience, which often stands in for various characters” – and corporately represents the audience for her character Cleo’s spoken poems. While not “group-based” like the work of Te Ohu Whakaari in 1980s Wellington or Kila Kokonut Krew in Mangere in the new millennium, this play comes out of a community and is offered back to that community without which it would not exist.
The impetus for communal self-reflection comes from the same lack experienced in the past by minority groups like lesbians, gays or Maori and elderly women, as well as Pasifika people generally. Says Meredith, “I could not find myself or my peers online, on TV, in books, in history or in the backyard. There was nowhere in the world to turn and see my people shine.” The fact that Meredith has only two characters is not limiting, for one has recently turned “Sapphist”, the two are artists in different media, one is Samoan and the other Tongan/Maori, both share a “damn beautiful” grandmother. Already there are various communities represented through these details, in addition to the cohort of early-20s urban Polynesian (“Urbanesian”) women who are “restless”, “ambitious”, “fast and furious”, aware of “mothers daughters mothers / lined for lines forever”. Young people, of course, don’t live alone. Along with the brash, streetwise charisma of the up-and-coming set, Cleo has many points of vulnerability, not the least being that while she is trying to land the ultimate “world-class” job, she is sharing a bed with baby brother: “every time I go to sleep, there’s plastic soldiers, bloody mutant turtles, little matchbox cars … .”
Vela Manusaute’s Taro King comes out of the same workaday chaos, the same struggle to earn enough to eat, to compete. This time the cast of nine who performed in the original (2002) production and the troupe of 14 who played 17 roles in a revised version (2012) seem, fittingly, to be included in the list of the “creative team”. The large and inter-related fictional “team” reveals the members’ likeness to each other as friends and family, but also their difference, with a Fijian-Indian man marked out for promotion away from a Samoan family man, his friend. Ambition isn’t for everyone, when it has these negative effects; in another sense it is: of the large Samoan family, one is marked out to succeed on everyone else’s behalf, to “become champion of the world and feed this whole family, feed the whole of South Auckland, including your father’s village in Samoa.” The one always implies the many.
All the Urbanesia plays involve comedy on a number of levels. The most trenchant in its satire is Victor Rodger’s My Name is Gary Cooper which turns the “happy talk” of Hollywood’s South Pacific inside out. A Samoan man named after a Hollywood star travels to Los Angeles to seek out one of the cameramen who worked on the film Return to Paradise in Samoa in 1952. While appearing the innocent brown boy in a cultural setting unfamiliar to him, he exacts a terrible and ironic revenge for the exploitation and abuse that Hollywood colonisation wrought on his people. No one is innocent; all clichés are upended, like the one cameraman Nick brings out in an attempt at sincerity: “nothing means more to me than my family”.
Family is the complex subject also of A Frigate Bird Sings by Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Nathaniel Lees, commissioned by the International Festival of the Arts and first performed in 1996 to critical acclaim. It is a tough-minded but tender portrayal of a Samoan fa’afafine (a man acting in the way of a woman) in an immigrant family. The unique thing about the fa’afafine (as opposed to transvestite, queen or transgender) role is its treasured place as mother/sister/aunt in the household. Because it involves something like the multi-tasking of a western stay-at-home wife who looks after everybody, it brings with it the risk of entrapment, of being consumed by others’ demands. This play, while celebrating the role with sympathetic humour, addresses the fact that the fa’afafine – especially in one particular family’s circumstances in contemporary Auckland – also has needs. He/she has colleagues too – other men who live as women – in the form of the impossibly named Dejavu and Shaninqua, girls who “have issues” working Karangahape Road. Loneliness and pain are poignant in the song of the legendary frigate bird; says the “bird” at the centre of this realist/poetic story, “I never want to be lonely.”
Community and company as basic human needs inform both Briar Grace-Smith’s Haruru Mai and Strange Resting Places by Paolo Rotondo and Rob Mokaraka. Both are also set against a background of WWII, the first in retrospect, from a situation dated 1962, the second in the thick of the fighting at Monte Cassino. In his foreword to this dual volume of Maori plays, David O’Donnell recalls that Playmarket published the first (1991) collection of plays by Maori writers, in which Roma Potiki acknowledged Taki Rua (formerly The Depot) Theatre for its “consistent and continued support of Maori and Pacific Island theatre”. Both plays in this latest volume were premiered by Taki Rua Productions, Haruru Mai being commissioned for the International Festival of the Arts in 2000.
The title Haruru Mai is said to evoke “the rumbling of distant thunder, giving an ominous subtext” to the tale. This relates to the author’s anti-romantic reading of the wartime exploits of the Maori Battalion, at least in the story of her main character, the veteran Silas. Returning to his small-town Northland home to find he must defend his occupation of his “own” house and land, Silas also carries a huge burden from his active service, which only he knows was not always heroic. The other characters – his cousin Pearl, his inappropriately young partner Paloma, and a troubled youth, Taku – are carefully drawn, along with the ghost of Paloma’s father, a soldier who died in Italy in 1943. Inexorably we are drawn into the net of inter-relationship, much as we are in My Name is Gary Cooper. The tone, despite surface humour, is in this case more like tragedy. Family brings people together and family tears them apart.
For a more easily enjoyable comedy, akin to the insouciant mockery of Italian commedia dell’ arte, Strange Resting Places takes the theatrical cake. In a playful trilingual exercise, the theft of a pig, and a goat, and entanglement with a baby-weary madonna and a deserter from the Fascist army, make for physical antics that are just as Maori/Pasifika as they are Italian. Underneath however, there’s a serious moral question about the battle for the Cassino monastery. Some Maori soldiers are Catholic; there are “Christians on both sides”. Furthermore, finding musical affinities between Maori, Italian and American culture makes the point that we are one humanity.
Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer and photographer, who has been a theatre critic since 1974.