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NZ International Arts Festival
Where We Once Belonged
By Sia Figiel
ddapted for the stage by Dave Armstrong
Directed by Colin McColl and David Fane
NZIAF & Auckland Theatre Company

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 8 Mar 2008 to 16 Mar 2008
[1hr 20 mins, no interval]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 10 Mar 2008

Margaret Mead popularised the topic with Coming of Age in Samoa, but Sia Figiel's Where We Once Belonged (winner of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in the South East Asia / South Pacific region) paints a very different picture. It lifts the idyllic Pacific Paradise palm frond to expose something quite other, with all the intensity and humour of a bourgeoning adolescent awareness.

For those wishing to reference the known, it could be described as a Samoan female The God Boy meets The Vagina Monologues via Puberty Blues. But really it is its own honest insight into a culture that may or may not have moved on since the 1970s, when it is set.

The "where" of the title is as much the era and prevailing mind-sets, as the location: Western Samoa, at a time when 'progress' has brought the likes of TV and pornographic magazines to Apia, and now they are infiltrating the fictitious nearby village of Malaefou. Of course Christianity has long since made its mark, and whether the strict regimes enforced in its name were already entrenched in fa'a Samoa (the Samoan way), or the church and its dictates are to be blamed for distorting once good social values, I do not know [those who do, please enlighten us via Comments].

I take it the experiences of 13 year-old Alofa Filiga are not to be seen as unusual; that it is a fiction fabricated - by Samoa's first acknowledged woman novelist (also a performance poet) - to exemplify the generation gap, gender inequalities and cultural divides that prevailed in the 1970s.

Now, as dramatised by Dave Armstrong from Figiel's novel, Where We Once Belonged adds an important dimension to the work of The Naked Samoans, Pacific Underground before them, and playwrights Dianna Fuemana, Makerita Urale and Tusiata Avia, because it dares to bring a female perspective to the issues of male dominance, moral hypocrisy, violence as a means of discipline, and individual-versus-community.

The traditional form of storytelling, in the fale with villagers sitting around the space, has informed this adaptation and production, co-directed by Colin McColl and David Fane in designer Michael Tuffery's traverse setting of perspex: a long translucent performance platform, transparent seats that double as drums when slapped with jandals, a transparent ribbed evocation of a huge palm frond that forms a curved canopy - all lit in Pacific white light by Tony Rabbit.

This is a story with nowhere to hide. It demands to be heard, especially as told by a dynamic ensemble of five actors playing multiple roles with energy, humour and grace.

From the creation myth that launches the storytelling to the image of a woman cast adrift at the end, the quest is for a centre of being, first for Samoa, then for oneself. And at the play's centre, Alofa - played with wide-eyed spirit and clarity by Joy Vaele - is experiencing feelings at the centre of her being that are simultaneously wondrous and dangerous.

Her father, Filiga (a powerful presence in the frame of Robbie Magasiva) is the centre of his own universe. Even though he threw out one wife to take in a pregnant other - Alofa's mother (also played by Vaele) - she grows up to revere him alongside Jesus Christ and Bruce Lee.

School is cool with friends like Lili (Goretti Chadwick) and Moa (Anapela Polataivao), who share Alofa's growing interest in the mysteries of adult life. Then there are the boys. Sisifo (Robbie M) is a bit of a sook but the minister's much more worldly-wise son Lealofi (Pua Magasiva) is a dreamboat, with an insistent mast at his centre.

As for the teachers: comedy arises from Chadwick's American Peace Corps volunteer, Mrs Cunningham, failing to comprehend the inability of the Samoan 'we' to experience life as the western 'I', while Polataivao's fearsome bully Mrs Samasoni - the sort who scrapes nail polish off with a razor blade - epitomises educational principles we all hope have been well and truly superseded. But even the likes of Mrs S can surprise us ...

With the advent of TV - Filiga is the first in the village to get one - notions of womanhood and femininity get a makeover, thanks to The Bionic Woman and Charlie's Angels. These are the things which Siniva (Chadwick), described in the programme as "the blind village fool", rages against as examples of how western so-called-civilisation is destroying Samoa's so-called innocence.

I confess to some confusion here: is Siniva the woman - also played by Chadwick - who won a scholarship to study in NZ and came back with an MA? If so, the means by which she transformed into "the blind village fool" escaped me, and given the importance this character has at the end, this confusion is unfortunate.

Spoiler warning (although I will be circumspect):
With all the themes and plot-lines set, everything comes to a head one storm-soaked afternoon - wonderfully evoked in John Gibson's sound design - when Alofa, feeling ill and heading home from school early, walks in on her father ... I won't specify what she sees; let's just call the experience loss of innocence by proxy and total loss of faith in him. And this time, I'm side-tracked by a credibility question: did this happen at the Filiga home? If so, how come? Didn't the woman involved know Alofa was heading home early that afternoon? If not, the exact whereabouts of the encounter needs to be made clearer.
Spoiler warning ends.

Cleverly placed for comic relief while teasing out the increasing complex question of what is good or bad, right or wrong, the children enact the parable of the Prodigal Son as their traditional White Sunday performance.

In order to attend Samoa College, Filiga sends Alofa to live with her extended family; the aiga, whose core role is to protect and punish: her stern, no-nonsense grandmother, Tausi (Polataivao) and stuttering yet controlling Uncle Asu (Pua M), who slides with disconcerting ease from apparent fool to malevolent disciplinarian.

While physical maturation proceeds apace, innocence remains, as in not really knowing the difference between an economist and a communist when it comes to the palagi Mr Brown, for whom Lily cleans and who turns out to have a 'dirty magazine' hidden away where they shouldn't have been looking. Shock, awe, fascination ...

So it comes to pass that when Lealofi starts taking an interest, or taking advantage of Alofa's crush on him, she is more inclined to broaden her experience first hand than run away. But someone in the community sees and the aiga must act - against the girl, of course. (He may be the minister's son but boys will be boys ...)

And the father does what's expected of him. "Even when he was hitting me, he couldn't look me in the eye," says Alofa. "When he was punishing me, he was punishing himself."

What with speedy deliveries (it played 10 minutes shorter than advertised), Samoan accents interlaced with Samoan language, and a setting that meant actors often had their backs to us, I can't say I 'got' everything. But I did feel I'd been fully immersed in a cultural experience that broadened my understanding of what has become an indelible part of our own social fabric. And I certainly felt entertained in the best sense of the term.

More important is the challenge Where We Once Belonged offers in confronting social value systems that persist in some quarters, and that certain factions would like to see prevail once more. It's a classic case of recalling recent history in order to be sure we don't repeat it.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Sian Robertson
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);