22 October, Blyth, HBAF18 Written by Tusiata Avia Directed by Anapela Polata’ivao Review by Nafanua Kersel
I’m starting at The End. The End, with standing ovation done, when lights return to remind us of where we are in time and space. When patrons look around them for reconnection with belongings, or companions. It’s the space where some leave quickly, while others are left sitting with questions. Where I see strained faces, some with eyes that shuffle more than the feet of their owners. There is a sense of “what did we just see”. I turn to a friend, a wahine Māori, we talk, smile and cry. I hear someone say “well, that was eye-opening”. Yes, for some it was. For others it was heart-expanding. For me there was also gut-wrenching where I felt exposed down to the bone, to the guts, with the intricacies of my inner make-up being inspected and clucked over, deemed too complex to put away. My heart is racing, my spine and scalp tingling.
I’m a long time fangirl of Tusiata Avia. I love that machete-knife-edge that I feel myself balancing upon when I read her poetry. The same knife-edge of contradiction that I’ve unsteadily walked or played with in my reality as a Samoan woman living in Niu Sila – yet nevertheless measured against the traditional markers of a “good Samoan girl”. Under Anapela Polata’ivao’s direction and a skilled cast of actors, Avia’s poetry collection Wild Dogs Under My Skirt becomes nothing short of an impetus for revolution. As a six-woman, multi-character play, the poetry finds new purpose as an extrinsic expression of that symbolic knife edge, sharpened to glinting.
In the beginning, five actors file onto the dimly lit stage, set with six chairs, and a display of pisupo (canned corned beef) presented as if enshrined on a pulpit. Even in the low light, I recognise the flash of familiar adornment, the kind worn by Pasifika women. Shell, feather, tooth and tusk serve purpose as ‘ula, kiki and fulumoa. The women play ukulele, sing and ususu as the sixth of the group, played by Stacey Leilua enters by mo’emo’e, the beginning of a gorgeous siva samoa. She is the taupou, the epitome of “tama’ita’i Samoa” (Samoan girl/woman), graceful and fluid, humbly bent at the knee. She’s our muse.
The va is created and the women work artfully, one by one to unravel, examine and play with the tension presented through the very concept of ideal tama’ita’i Samoa. As each actor monologues a character, the others bear witness or become the scenery and soundtrack through sighs, cackles, claps, struts, sway, thrust and felicitous tableau. Their bodies and breath are eloquent and the result is as sensually stunning as it is comic.
I’ve often joked that we Samoans communicate in two main ways: mockery and flirtation, bound together with laughter. The same is true here, employed through the satirical sensibilities of classic fale aitu (“house of spirits” – traditional Samoan comedic theatre). In this light, untold secrets and stories are treated through character. Stories of sexual and physical abuse, colonisaton, cultural appropriation and romanticised sterotype are given this space, unapologetically. These are stories embedded within a seam of the madonna/whore dichotomy and wrapped in a Samoan cultural context. But they are universal and tragically powerful in any language. Add to this, erudite staging and production and Wild Dogs Under My Skirt becomes a masterful example of diasporic theatre, seasoned with humour.
Unravelling the teine Samoa ideal brings us swiftly to the star moment. Polata’ivao is jaw-droppingly powerful as she envokes Pa’u-stina to snarl “I am da devil pa’umuku kirl”. The finale leaves me panting and almost desperately in tears. The proverbial mic drop moment happens at The End, when the players stare into our faces as if to say “e a la?” – So what of it?
To say that Wild Dogs Under my Skirt is “raw” does it a disservice and borders on cliche. Why is it that expressive work by women of colour is often called raw – raw to whom? And by what marker? Because although there was a standing ovation, not all stood.
To say that Tusiata Avia’s poetry makes for a confronting piece of theatre is not enough either. This is a full-body plunge in winter seas. It’s breathtaking, skin tingling and teeth rattling. I feel alive. It’s as real to me as a salt-crested wave smashing me full in the face until I am nothing but that moment, because there are no words, no thoughts, just feeling. Exhilaration, pain, vulnerability, joy, cheeky confidence and acknowledgement. But what I don’t feel is lonely.