The play that started out as one thing and ended as quite another
A Frigate Bird sings
Directed by Alison Quigan
Auckland Theatre Company
Mangere Arts Centre
Every production of a play is a different interpretation of what the playwright intended.
And when one is revived after many years, the world may have changed so much in the intervening years it no longer reflects society so much as its outdated and abandoned customs or prejudices.
That can make some plays irretrievable but, in some cases, such as in A Frigate Bird Sings, the revival after 14 years shines a rather different light on society from that intended by the playwrights.
A Frigate Bird Sings traces the life of a fa’afine, a Samoan youngster, who, after the death of his mother, is required by his grieving father to take over running the house and fulfill what is customarily in Samoa a female (or fa’afine) role.
But the boy, Vili, becomes a lonely man who befriends other fa’afine who earn their livings as drag queens on K Rd. He likes their outrageous style, mimicks it and develops a relationship with his brother’s rugby team captain.
Sadly, for a young man so full of hope, everything goes wrong. His father demands Vili looks after the family but he is also appalled that his son has become a daughter rather than a son and turns to drink; his brother Sione doesn’t like the drag queens’ behaviour and that Vili is leaving him to look after his father when he has a promising rugby career with the Blues; and the rugby captain can’t cope with society’s rejection of his relationship with Vili.
Director Alison Quigan, in her programme notes, sees the play as exploring “what it is to be different in a complex world that, on the one hand values tradition, and on the other accepts and celebrates a third gender”.
Auckland Theatre Company artistic director Colin McColl also writes that it’s a “very particular story but in its call for tolerance is also a universal one”.
The original play written by David Fane, Oscar Kightley and Nathaniel Lees probably was about tolerance. When they wrote it for the 1998 International Festival of the Arts, it caused quite a stir (and not just because the first two were mostly known for their comedy as The Naked Samoans).
New Zealand had made important change in that era: the Homosexual Law Reform Bill that legalised consensual sex between men aged 16 and older was passed controversially in 1986 and it took some years before Kiwis accepted openly gay people in their public lives.
The discovery of fa’afine in our midst, not so widely known publicly, was a surprise that the play exploited.
Their play compared fa’afine with the enormous Frigate Bird, which has a giant wingspan that means it can stay aloft effortlessly for hundreds of kilometres. But in Samoa it is an omen: when you see a frigate bird a storm is coming. The play sees fa’afine as a storm in the making.
(By the by, Samoa is not the only culture to connect a storm to the Frigate Bird – the late poet Alistair Campbell who hailed from Rarotonga called his first novel The Frigate Bird. The book is about a search for love, sanity and innocence – which is not so far from this play. Walt Whitman also wrote a poem about the bird).
I can see that in that era, a call for tolerance was a brave call and important, and that some traditional Samoans may have been appalled by what the playwrights were revealing about their culture.
But New Zealand now is a far more tolerant country and I imagine (or rather, guess) that Samoa may be as well.
So, when the dust is shaken off this play and modern bits inserted (references to Facebook, the Auckland Blues etc), a bid for tolerance wasn’t what I heard.
Instead, I left having heard a clarion call about how people in this society can’t deal with their grief even within their own families; how they turn to alcohol and violence in a world that rejects their despair.
In this play the drag queen fa’afines had both been abandoned even by their families; one revelled in her extreme violence: the world had let her down and she was just returning the kick in the pants. They drank too much as did the troubled father – and there was no hope of redemption.
This play, which had many light comedic (and dance and music) elements, moved inexorably into tragedy. In the end we are left with the situation unresolved – a kind of group howling despairingly into the night.
The stars of the show in the wonderfully over-the-top drag queen sense were Amanaki Prescott and Taofia Pelesasa. Their dancing was wonderfully physical and sensual (the lip synching though appropriate was less satisfying – it seemed to go on a bit long).
Pelesasa was an innocent corrupted as Vili; Prescott played a hard, violent Shaniqua – sure of her nightclub audience and cynically milking it for every inch. But the other characters were played as strongly and as well-defined.
The drunk father (David Fane) in particular, angry brother Sione (Troy Tu’ua), the deeply sad fa’afine Dejavu (Shimpal Lelisi) and the rugby captain worried by what people would think Hugh (Peter Coates) all contributed to what became a very fine performance. It was well worth seeing for the actors alone.
This view made the work gripping at times. If it is revived again, though, the playwrights might consider removing the first unnecessary and chaotic scene. And they might write a proper ending in keeping with the tragedy.
And I would like to know in that revival if modern fa’afine face these same issues, if these are still important cultural issues in Samoa or New Zealand or if these issues are more historical.
A future programme might also list the names of some of the Samoan songs that were sung or referenced in the play – they must have been good or well-known because some people in the audience hummed along to some in harmony.
There were some irritations; most important were the incredibly uncomfortable temporary seats at the Mangere Arts Centre. Either an interval is needed so the audience can stretch or better seats are needed (along with stairs that don’t shake as you climb up and down).
The publicity shot for the play features David Fane with a Samoan fan: how I wish fans had been handed out at the “theatre” room, which rapidly heated up under theatre lights. Fans please; hand or electric. Or open the back door.