Theatre group tackles Pacific's last taboo

By Ingrid Leary in Port Moresby

The opening ceremony of the arts and culture festival at Port Moresby. Photo / Faanati Mamea
The opening ceremony of the arts and culture festival at Port Moresby. Photo / Faanati Mamea

A Wellington theatre company has assembled a cast of female actors to break down some of the most entrenched taboos in Melanesia.

Fiji-New Zealander Nina Nawalowalo and her husband, Tom McCrory, of the Conch Theatre in Wellington are leading a delegation of women actors from the Solomon Islands at the Fifth Melanesian Arts Festival in Papua New Guinea.

Funded by the European Union and managed by the British Council, they use a blend of traditional and contemporary Melanesian theatre to communicate messages on the sensitive topic of domestic violence.

The festival is colourful, entertaining and vibrant, and a vital meeting of minds, as Pacific countries grapple with protection of intellectual property, maintenance of customary heritage in a global economy and the under-representation of women in cultures often steeped in patriarchy.

Within the Pacific region, women are under-represented in leadership roles. Domestic violence is at the core of the gender inequality. The Pacific region has the worst statistics globally, according to UN reports dealing with this issue, and women's equality is fundamental if the Melanesian island nations seek to reap the full benefits of their own artistic traditions.

It's historic, then, that for the first time at an international gathering, the 156-strong Solomon Islands contingent includes a 13-member all-women's theatre group called Stages of Change, led by Nawalowalo.

Until now, only the Solomons men have performed internationally with such a large contingent. The involvement of the women suggests a shift in thinking by the Solomons Government as it seeks to present itself in a more acceptable light internationally, showing that women do have a presence and a voice in Solomons society.

The festival is colourful, entertaining and vibrant. Photo / Faanati Mamea
The festival is colourful, entertaining and vibrant. Photo / Faanati Mamea

By funding the group's participation, the Solomons Government has embraced the sensitive material which the theatre group explores, and in doing so has signalled to the international community that it is facing gender issues head on, and with sincerity.

The significance of taking this hidden subject to the public stage is not lost on the media here. Leader Lanieta Leo made the radio news, and the first of their six shows played to a full house.

Solomon Islands Arts and Tourism Minister Samuel Manettoali has endorsed the group's message of safety for all women in Melanesia.

A former lawyer, the minister acknowledges that domestic violence is endemic and that theatre is an ideal vehicle for engaging hearts and minds in what has been an off-limits topic.

Indonesia is present for the first time after years of restricted access because of Jakarta's sensitivities regarding the suppression of Papuan nationalism. Torres Strait of Australia and Timor Leste are also attending.

- NZ Herald

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