Cultures in transit to new artforms

By Dionne Christian , Dionne Christian

Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson (left) with Nadine Nahimana who appears in In Transit, our first Pasifika/African theatre production.
Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson (left) with Nadine Nahimana who appears in In Transit, our first Pasifika/African theatre production.

In the 1980s - newly arrived in Auckland from Kenya, via London - if Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson so much as glimpsed a fellow African person crossing the street, she would stop them for a chat.

"There was so few of us! It was a real rarity to see another African person," Kiarie Sanderson recalls.

The homes she shared, first in Auckland then in Wellington with husband Martyn Sanderson, quickly became known as "the embassy" as people newly arrived in New Zealand from throughout Africa found their way to the couple.

Kiarie Sanderson, a theatre-maker and story-teller, and Sanderson, a writer, actor, poet and co-founder of Wellington's Downstage theatre, ensured theirs was a home filled with music, stories, plans and dreams to nourish the soul.

They founded African Connection Aotearoa and, in 2009, brought revered Kenyan artist and playwright Wakanyote Njuguna to Wellington to direct the play Muntu. Sanderson died two days before opening night; performances continued in his honour.

But Muntu and Sanderson's death continue to resonate nine years on, laying the foundation for New Zealand's first Pasifika and African theatre production, In Transit. It is based on true stories collected by Kiarie Sanderson during interviews with severalAfrican people living in New Zealand. These stories are now in the Oral History Collection of the National Library.

"When Martyn and I were making Muntu, we went to speak to the mother of a girl from Somalia who we wanted to be in the play," she explains. "We needed to get her permission for her daughter to be part of it and, while we were there, she just opened up and started talking about her life. I knew then there were other important stories to tell.

"The tradition of telling stories comes very naturally to many Africans, but what amazed me in the interviews was the generosity and warmth of the interviewees when relating some of their most horrific, as well as humorous, experiences, and I knew that all New Zealanders would appreciate their stories as I do."

It was to be the couple's next joint project so Kiarie Sanderson pressed on and has spent seven years bringing In Transit to the stage.

Using music, dance and spoken-word performances, it highlights the experiences of former refugees and migrants as they move from life in their African homelands and the sometimes dangerous journeys to new lives in New Zealand.

It includes stories from the first generation of New Zealand-born young people who see themselves as Kiwis, not African, and want to establish their own identities while showing respect for their parents and the cultures they left behind.

There are eight characters, composites created from those Kiarie Sanderson interviewed, played by actors, musicians and dancers from African, Pasifika and Maori communities in Auckland and Wellington.

Those behind In Transit were especially keen to see what would happen when African and Pacific cultures combined their theatre and performing arts traditions in a contemporary setting. If rehearsals are anything to go by, it will make for high-energy performances made richer by music and dance.

Choreographers Alfdaniels Mabingo and Charlene Tedrow have done much work in fusing dance styles to create what director Justine Simei-Barton hopes will be new and unique styles.

Simei-Barton, a theatre, film and TV producer and director, says she always knew there would be similarities and connections between African and Pacific traditional performing arts. She points to the importance of story-telling and oral history in the two communities; the way that music and movement are almost intrinsic.

"You might look at the movements and think they are different but what makes them not so different is the world view that informs them," she says.

What: In Transit
Where & when: Mangere Arts Centre, Thursday, May 4 - Saturday, May 13

- NZ Herald

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