Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Pacific theatre picks up the pace

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Birds, starring Ali Foa'i, is at  the Basement from Tuesday.
Birds, starring Ali Foa'i, is at the Basement from Tuesday.

Five years ago, Vela Manusaute was pissed off. And the Niuean-Samoan founder of theatre's Kila Kokonut Krew made sure everybody knew it. Why, asked the hard-hitting visionary at a Playmarket panel discussion, does Auckland Theatre Company get all the money? Why isn't there a venue dedicated to Pacific theatre?

The then-ATC literary manager, Roy Ward, agreed that producing three Pacific-penned plays in 15 years was paltry for the flagship company of the world's largest Polynesian city, and said that ATC didn't have its own venue either so "we're all to some degree in the same boat". Manusaute scoffed at this.

Someone mentioned small community grants. "I don't want five grand, you can get that five grand from Black Power down the road," Manusaute replied. "I want to take it to the next level and go international ... Our Pacific people - we are desperately hungry! ... Hungry for our voices to be heard."

Fast forward to 2013 and a surprising amount has changed. The fantastic Mangere Arts Centre opened in 2010 and is already well-used, hosting numerous Maori and Pacific plays. Although there's been nothing Pacific on ATC's main bill since 2009, even ATC is putting on Pacific plays in Mangere, including last year's Sinarella, co-produced with the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (PIPA). Meanwhile PIPA has just opened beautiful new premises in Avondale.

And Kila Kokonut Krew's own musical, The Factory, not only received Auckland Arts Festival money but was a festival centrepiece this year. The show has spun off a web series at www.thefactorystory.co.nz and the Edinburgh Festival is in Manusaute's sights.

With its diversity, depth and quality, Auckland's Pacific theatre talent deserves - nay, demands - even more support. Other recent highlights: in March, Victor Rodger's Black Faggot dominated the Auckland Fringe Festival awards. In May, Michelle Johansson of the Black Friars group directed icon John Kneubuhl's Hawaiian play, Mele Kanikau - A Pageant, at the University of Auckland fale. In August, experimental theatre-maker Louise Tu'u was one of five members on the jury at Zurcher Theater Spektakel in Switzerland, an important performing arts festival. Lauded new works, classics and international prestige - all there.

This month, Auckland sees not one but three Pacific plays. Oscar Kightley and Erolia Ifopo's hilarious Romeo and Tusi, with a charismatic cast of talented Wellington Whitireia graduates, has just ended, while another revival, Dianna Fuemana's Birds, is at the Basement from Tuesday. The world premiere of Iaheto Ah Hi's Digital Winds is at Mangere from September 24.

Fuemana, a pioneering Niuean-New Zealand playwright, sees revivals as a sign of maturation: Pacific plays aren't disappearing when their playwrights move on. All three plays this month show young urban Pacific life, a trend which, she says, has grown out of earlier migration stories and broad comedy.

All happy then? Not quite. Pacific play seasons are usually short, and the Mangere venue is often cold. The new waterfront ATC theatre is unlikely to have this problem.

- NZ Herald

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