Floating Islanders: Pasifika theatre in Aotearoa by Lisa Warrington and David O’Donnell (Otago University Press, 2017), 284 pp. $39.95
Our quest should not to be for a revival of our past cultures but for the creation of new cultures which are free of the taint of colonialism and based firmly on our own pasts. The quest should be for a new Oceania.–Albert Wendt
The beauty of this book is that apart from being an entertaining and comprehensive summary of the birth and rise of Pasifika theatre in New Zealand, it also serves as a compelling social history.
I witnessed Nathaniel Lees’ 1995 production of John Kneubuhl’s classic Think of a Garden at the Depot Theatre, Wellington. The play’s historical backdrop is the tragic 1929 Samoan Mau independence protest that led to New Zealand police opening fire on peaceful protesters, injuring fifty Samoans and killing eleven, including the beloved leader Tupua Tamasese Leafoli III. I recall sitting in the theatre in the wake of this play, shocked that I had never heard of the incident. Reading Floating Islanders I was again struck to learn that New Zealand allowed a boat carrying people infected with influenza to dock in Samoa in 1919, as a result of which 22 per cent of the population died. Likewise, I’m sure there are many Kiwis who don’t know what the Dawn Raids were, how life works in a factory in South Auckland for a PI cleaner, or what fa`afine or afakasi truly mean. My hope is that this book finds an audience beyond theatre and academia, as it has much to teach us all, and to celebrate.
In the spirit of fale atau, let’s start at the end: I love a good appendix, and the selected timeline of Pasifika Productions 1981–2016 is a great one. I was relieved that I had seen some of the shows, but I was left wondering: where was I then? Why didn’t I see this one, or that one? The excellent photos showcase key performances, and the authors provide in-depth analysis that makes you wish you were there, and have hope for more revivals.
As Warrington and O’Donnell say, ‘It has been our prime objective to allow these practitioners to frame their own histories as writers, directors, actors and producers.’ The authors chose to embrace talanoa – Samoan for chat/exchange of ideas – so there are quotations from thirty interviews with Pasifika practitioners throughout the text that bring the shows, and their making, to life. These, combined with the scholarship, make it no surprise the book has already won awards.
The authors do well to acknowledge others who have written strongly about Pasifika theatre before them: Samson Samasoni, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Anton Carter, Christopher Balme, Diana Looser, Michelle Keown and Karen Stevenson, to name a few. Warrington and O’Donnell then take us on a thirty-year journey to chart the courses of the movers and shakers who made it all happen, and the many who continue to do so.
I do have a question for the authors, however, about honouring their intro, which asks: ‘How did a relatively small number of theatre practitioners make such a big impact in such a small time?’ Did they have any numbers to back this up? What is a ‘big’ impact? How does Pasifika theatre compare numbers-wise to Māori and Pākehā theatre in terms of productions and bums on seats? And funding? Some hard figures would have helped verify such statements. That said, it’s a fascinating story, and the authors should be applauded for capturing what is a huge undertaking in such an easy and enlightening manner.
The concept and practice of fale atau – traditional Samoan clowning – features throughout. Its legacy can be found in the rich vein of humour in Pasifika theatre that ranges from the riotous satire of the Naked Samoans, the ‘dad’ jokes of the Laughing Samoans (‘You are so charismatic.’ ‘I use an inhaler for that’), and Victor Rodger’s sophisticated drama with shock-humour in the likes of Ranterstantrum, Black Faggot, and My Name Is Gary Cooper. This is wrapped up in the chapter on humour: ‘Comedy for the kitchen or the lounge’. If you haven’t experienced how far Pasifika humour will go, note that one of the most famous companies is called KKK: Kila Kokonut Krew; or take this moment from a Naked Samoans’ show, which left my jaw on the floor, and the crowd gasping then howling with laughter at the truth and pain of it all:
Naked Samoans get out of a taxi, off for a big night on the town.
INDIAN TAXI DRIVER (played by Naked Samoan Mario Goa): ‘Try not to rape anyone tonight.’
That’s taking a machete to racial-profiling.
The influence of the church and ministers also features widely, with special mention of White Sunday. On this day children get to take on the roles of leaders, so the natural order is subverted – sometimes with hilarious results. White Sunday is acknowledged by many Pasifika performers as a formative experience, the time they got their first taste for putting on a show. It is also where many learnt that despite being told children must always be quiet and respectful, on this day they had to find their BIG VOICE, or, as Dave Fane explains:
… seeing my father undo his belt and coming towards the front of the church: with ‘Speak louder! Speak louder!’ And so you start screaming, ‘Oh! Jesus is a saviour! He’s trying to save us from the man with a belt!’
The humour is often there to both mask and reveal uncomfortable truths, however, and the book traces well how Pasifika theatre has engaged with the themes of immigration, alienation, loss of cultural identity, violence, suicide, and family ties versus making it in the Palagi world.
The groundbreaking work of Justine and Paul Semei-Barton with Pacific Theatre in Auckland is rightfully hailed. Justine saw fale atau as satirical comedy that could be applied to theatre:
A political device, in terms of turning the whole world upside down and allowing grassroots people to have their say … the actors would be absolutely protected because the spirits would come down on them, so they were allowed to say or do anything and everything. It was a way of balancing society.
Justine fostered many of the next generation, pushing them towards Toi Whakaari NZ Drama School to get professional training. One such person was Dave Fane, an Auckland uni rugby-head who went to an audition with a few mates just to take the piss, but who then came to realise that theatre had the same sense of camaraderie and team spirit that he found in sport. Brian Bird was another actor whom Justine pushed towards Toi Whakaari, but he wasn’t so sure about it. He changed his name to Vela Manusaute before he went: ‘I wanted to go into drama school as a full Pacific Islander. I heard so many stories about drama school turning them white, I wanted to stay brown.’
As a Pasifika woman, Justine sometimes felt she wasn’t just fighting Palagi society but also the PI guys: ‘bastards’ who weren’t used to being told what to do by a woman. Yet she earned everyone’s respect with her work ethic and ambition. Of special note is that for all the landmark big shows Pacific Theatre created, it was TIE (Theatre in Education) that paid the bills and helped the performers become true professionals.
Meanwhile in Christchurch, Pacific Underground was having a similar influence and developing the talents of Erolia Ifopo and Oscar Kightley. As companies formed, game-changing individuals floated between them and lead the way. Nathaniel Lees appears in many forms, and deserves a chapter of his own. Makerita Urale in Wellington was another. Her 1997 play Frangipani Perfume, about the hopes, dreams and conflicts of cleaners, led the way in challenging the stereotype that Pasifika women were voiceless. The characters embraced opera and then were reduced to the ‘piss and janola’ of their jobs.
Urale is credited with creating the title for this book, ‘emphasising the flexibility, fluidity, openness and interdisciplinarity of Pasifika theatre practitioners and companies’. This adaptability is borne out in the book’s discussion as actors become writers, become directors and producers, move into film and TV and beyond, to roles in Pasifika productions and making it in the mainstream.
The powerful force of Pacific women in the theatre is further covered in Chapter 9, ‘Pasifika women writers 2002–15: Born restless’. One of the leaders is Nina Nawalowalo’s company The Conch. Like the inspirational male founder of MAU, Lemi Ponifasio, who had created a unique butoh-based Pacific style, Nawalowalo was driven to go beyond narrative to create image-based physical theatre. Her work has achieved much acclaim, has toured internationally and, more recently with the White Guitar (2015), has embraced text. She continues to find new performance languages, and the ‘new culture’ that Albert Wendt yearns for in Oceania.
There are many other companies and performers to discover and recognise in this book. The authors convey their admiration for those who did the hard yards and broke down barriers, but also give us a sense of momentum as new companies, venues (like the Mangere Arts Centre, Ngā Tohu o Uenuku) and performers emerge. With this goes the surge in Pasifika TV and film, with many of its leading lights coming from roots in the theatre.
Victor Rodger is an example of one writer who has floated between these. I loved the authors’ exploration of how Rodger’s afakasi mixed heritage appears in his work, but also his pushing of boundaries in terms of sexuality, content and form. It was heartening to read how many afakasi Pasifika–Palagi collaborations had worked, including marriages of both work and heart. Perhaps these partnerships give us all hope of a chance to float together?
Some final floating thoughts: can we have more revivals so we can all experience the richness of Pasifika theatre history? Can we increase the support to the Pasifika artists who expand our hearts and minds as to what Aotearoa is, and can be?
And what about a Palagi or Pākehā–Māori (like me) reviewing Pasifika? This issue comes up regularly in the book but isn’t dived into. Warrington and O’Donnell themselves are both Palagi; however, both have deep connections to Aotearoa theatre. Several times they mention negative reviews written by Palagi reviewers and sense that these reviewers didn’t ‘get it’. I’d have liked more on what they didn’t get, or how perhaps there has to be a different form of review for Pasifika productions. What would the Ancestors do? How can we encourage Pasifika to review Pasifika? Maybe review and criticism are the wrong words?
The Pacific Underground Facebook page on 19 July 2018 indicates that this continues to be an issue, with the questioning of a Palagi review of a production of The Wizard of Otahuhu. At the end of the post the writer suggests that as a remedy, the reviewer might like to track down Floating Islanders, as ‘it’s a good read’. I smiled. That would seem as good an endorsement as any for this book – a good read, though I’d hasten to add it’s a great read. I hope it becomes a key text in the worlds of theatre and academia, but also among the general public. Float some money to OUP, read it, give it to a friend, and then, please, find some Pasifika theatre to drift away with.
DAVID GEARY (Taranaki iwi/Pākehā) is an all-rounder. He has worked as a playwright, TV and fiction writer, dramaturg, script consultant, poet, actor and educator in New Zealand and Canada for the last thirty years. He currently teaches scriptwriting, documentary and playwriting at Capilano University in Vancouver, Canada. He specialises in indigenous film and TV but also enjoys working in the mainstream. He writes haiku on twitter @gearsgeary, and his short story ‘Maui Goes to Hollywood’ will appear in a Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka edited collection for Penguin Random House NZ in 2018.