Courage, candour and bloody-mindedness, Frances Edmond

Playscripts
Victor Rodger: Black Faggot and Other Plays
Victoria University Press, $35.00
ISBN 9781776561032

“Life will always leave fiction for dead”: Victor Rodger, in the New Zealand Herald, summing up his life experience, thus far. Rodger’s upbringing is certainly uncommon – the stuff of fiction perhaps. The illegitimate son of a palagi teenage mother and an absent Samoan father, he grew up in “white” Christchurch in a Scottish born-again Christian family. His background is relevant in that he draws on it in many of his plays. His first, Sons, is a semi-autobiographical story of a young afakasi (half-caste) man in search of his origins and identity. In the same interview in the New Zealand Herald, Rodger says: “I can’t remember if I thanked him [his father] for my career because I’ve turned our fucked up relationship into an industry.” In contrast, Rodgers describes his mother as “all about love” and, indeed, in these plays the mother figures – Mama Letti in Black Faggot, Tahlz in Club Paradiso – are nurturing and forgiving, while the descriptions of dead Olivia in At the Wake are in similar vein.

If life is inevitably more exciting than fiction – in this case theatrical fiction in the form of plays – it raises the spectre of its relevance. He has a point: the constraints imposed by living one’s life inside a work of art are a challenge few can meet. It brings to mind the Stylites, Christian ascetics, effectively living sculptures, who spent years atop pillars preaching, fasting and praying, mortifying the body for the salvation of the soul. There is the further question of whether the fictionalising of Rodger’s own life is a pale or exotic imitation of the real thing. Rodger’s writing territory is that which much of so-called “polite society” would like to pretend doesn’t exist, or at least not in their neighbourhood. Particularly, he writes about questions of identity – sexual, racial and familial – about racism, homophobia and cultural hypocrisies.

“If your play’s not offending someone there’s something wrong with your play”: another quotation from Rodger, this time in The Christchurch Press, discussing a production of Black Faggot in the Christchurch Arts Festival in 2015. Apparently, the word “faggot” was originally a term of abuse for old women, often widows, who collected and sold firewood to make a meagre living – faggot-gatherers – the derisive use of feminine names and descriptive terms fairly common as insults for effeminate men. However, there is nothing effeminate about his most successful play to date, Black Faggot, from its titular opening line, a feast of muscular profanity and sexually inventive explicitness. In a series of monologues and duologues, the play explores being gay, “black” (Samoan), the risks and agonies of being in the closet (undercover), the possibilities of acceptance and forgiveness, the power of God over one’s sexuality – a character named Christian makes futile efforts to “pray the gay away”. The Destiny Church 2004 march against the Civil Union Bill was the initial inspiration for this play, Rodger making the plausible assumption that some of the sons marching with their fathers were gay and shredded by guilt and confusion. It languished until Pacific community opposition to the Marriage Equality Bill in 2012 prompted him to complete it.

After the Wake, the second play, apparently occupying more conventional territory, arose from Rodger wondering, “What if I was in the same room as my Scottish grandmother and my Samoan father, since we never were in life?” The funeral of Robert’s palagi mother, Olivia, dead from cancer, sets the scene, as Joan the caustic diva, Robert the gay grandson, and Tofi the absent Samoan father, attempt to negotiate a path through the toxic miasma of family griefs and betrayals.

In Club Paradiso, arguably the most confronting of the works, he puts society’s marginals – those who are damaged beyond repair, those we would like to pretend are not a product of society’s failures – firmly foreground, centre stage. Late night, closing time at a club in Flat Bush, Otara, a gun-toting P-fuelled psychopath and his offsider, on the run from the cops, burst in, the resulting mayhem brutally shocking and disturbing, but also fearlessly clear-sighted.

If life is more exciting than fiction, what is the role of fiction, of drama? In Rodger’s world view, as decisively demonstrated in these plays, it is to challenge, to unsettle traditional values and accepted codes of behaviour with menace and wit; to offend audiences, outrage them into examining their assumptions and prejudices. Rodger’s writing is raw, intense, fearless, peeling away, or rather tearing off surfaces, dodging stereotypes by delving courageously into character depths. He demonstrates a fine ear for dialogue, deftly and humanely negotiates the porous boundaries between humour and hurt, surfaces and substance, drama and melodrama. His courage, candour and sheer bloody-mindedness are to be applauded both on and off our stages. Plays are realised in performance; nevertheless, these three make for a terrific read.

Frances Edmond is an Auckland screenwriter, editor and reviewer.

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