New face in powerful Niuean drama

By Dionne Christian

Nearly a decade after it was written, the contemporary Pacific drama Mapaki is reprised at the Herald Theatre because, says playwright Dianna Fuemana, the issues it deals with remain relevant.

First performed by Fuemana at Grey Lynn's Archhill Gallery in 1998, Mapaki ("broken" in Niuean) explores the world of young Niuean woman Fisi. Caught in a web of domestic violence, Fisi survives by retreating into a world of illusion and childhood memory.

"Mapaki deals with social issues that are still relevant and the story needs to be told again and again," Fuemana says. "Theatre is a powerful force for education and changing perceptions."

Told in a blend of Niuean and English, Mapaki earned Fuemana two nominations - best newcomer actress and best new writer - at Wellington's Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards after its 1999 season at Bats Theatre. She took it to arts festivals throughout the country and to Europe and North America under the direction of friend and fellow theatre practitioner Hori Ahipene.

Fuemana describes Ahipene as having "an innate understanding of Pacific women" and says he challenged her to tell the strongest story possible. The subject nature coupled with the demands of a one-woman show made it an emotionally draining experience.

This time, Fuemana produces instead of performing.

She has left it to emerging actor Nora Aati, with Ahipene directing, to bring the one-woman piece to life.

She has no regrets about the decision. "Nora is 21 and she has so much energy. It's wonderful to watch a young Pacific woman taking such a big work and making it her own.

"I have sat in on a few rehearsals and it has actually brought tears to my eyes seeing how frustrated I was when I wrote Mapaki."

Fuemana, of Niuean and American Samoan extraction, says some of that frustration arose from media portrayals of her people and the simplistic assumptions made about domestic violence "that if you are dumb enough to be with someone who beats you, then you deserve it".

Not revealing her exact age - "I'm old enough to have two teenage children but young enough not to look as if I do" - Fuemana also sees Mapaki as a work that can be performed by a new generation of Pacific actors.

"Bringing it back is also about continuing to promote Pacific theatre. Quite often you get shows that play only once and then close, but the growth of Pacific performing arts demands work that can be reprised.

"Mapaki is a piece that emerging actors can look at doing and it adds to the tapestry of Pacific Island work."

Another of Fuemana's five plays gets a second outing in Australia this year. The one-man show The Packer, performed at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre, will be staged in Sydney.

"It's nice to have a body of work that other people are putting on."

Dianna Fuemana, the youngest of eight children and the cousin of singer Pauly Fuemana, is writing a feature film script. Set in West Auckland, it explores the topical territory of youth gangs by getting behind the headlines to examine the families and communities the youngsters come from.

What: Mapaki
Where and when: Herald Theatre, Feb 15-25

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