Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

10/07/2015 - 25/07/2015

Auckland Theatre Company’s NEXT BIG THING 2015

Production Details

by Leki Jackson-Bourke and 'Amanaki Prescott-Feletau

When the new boy at St Valentine High turns out to be fabulous fakaleiti Lisa, the haters turn on the heat and a cruel dare is put in motion. But Lisa is hard to resist and as the school ball looms she might not be the only one to fall in love for the very first time.

The Basement Theatre
10 – 25 July 2015
@ 7.30pm

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Edwin Beats – MR JENSEN
Jahna Batt – SIA
Isaac Ah Kiong – LEO
Lyncia Muller – BRITTANY
Hannz Jackson – MOSES
Jono Soochoon – DEMETRI  
Takerei Komene – PIZZA GUYS
Khloe Lam Kam – LISA
Lila Pese – MUM
Natasha Hoyland – COACH 

Lynne Cardy – Producer
Whetu Silver – Project Manager
Tanya Muagututi'a – Production Coordinator
Kate Burton – Production Manager
Joamie Blackburn – Production Assistant
Christine Thurquhart – Set & Costume Designer
Rachel Marlow – Lighting Designer
Thomas Press – Sound Design Mentor
Ruby-Reihana Wilson – Stage Manager Mentor
Margaret-Mary Hollins – Voice Tutor


Youth , Theatre ,

A modern day fairy tale with teeth and claws

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 17th Jul 2015

Let’s face it, kid’s rhymes are a crack up. How about:
   Trick or treat
   Smell my feet
   Give me something good to eat.
   If you don’t, I don’t care,
   I’ll pull down your underwear.

The mere name of this show brings memories of childhood flooding back, some of them nice, most of them crappy, few of them neutral. Kids can be cruel, we’re so often told, and the resultant pain can last a lifetime, often seemingly longer. If you’re different it can be even worse, as the suicide statistics reported in a ground-breaking article in the Journal of Adolescent Health Volume 55, Issue 1published in July 2014 clearly, and unequivocally, explains to us.

No, it’s not some easily dismissed academic tome published somewhere in Eastern Europe or in the southern states of America where we know – or at least suspect – this might be the case but it’s here is good old, liberal Godzone. Entitled ‘The Health and Well-Being of Transgender High School Students: Results From the New Zealand Adolescent Health Survey (Youth’12)’ authors Clark, Lucassen, Bullen, Denny, Fleming, Robinson, & Rossen, under the aegis of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at The University of Auckland, tell it, irrefutably, like it is. Their fact sheet says that “around four out of every 100 students reported that they were either transgender (1.2 percent) or that they were not sure of their gender (2.5 percent).” The key findings of the study also include statistics showing that 40 percent of transgender students had significant depressive symptoms and nearly half had self-harmed, many attempting suicide, in the previous 12 months. Dr Terryann Clark, principal investigator for the ‘Youth’12’ study is reported in the NZ Herald as saying “almost one in five transgender students has experienced bullying at school on a weekly basis – nearly five times higher than the proportion of students who were non-transgender.” Heavy stuff if you think about it, and the writers of Inky Pinky Ponky certainly have.

Like ‘eeny, meeny, miney, moe’, Inky Pinky Ponky is a counting-out game often used to select a person to be ‘it’ or ‘he’, for the purpose of playing another game such as tag or bullrush. To refresh your memory, in case you’ve forgotten, it goes something like this: 
   Inky pinky ponky
   Daddy had a donkey,
   Donkey died, Daddy cried,
   Inky pinky ponky’.

Being singled out, however it is done, can be a nightmare for transgender or gender variant kids as Lucassen, Clark et al point out and the results can be catastrophic but Prescott-Faletau and Jackson-Bourke, while they have a similar message in this very special play, approach it from quite a different perspective: one of hope and confident optimism. Not that I realise this as I watch the narrative unfold. 

The central character is Lisa (Khloe Lam Kam) and she is fakaleiti: assigned male at birth and now living as a lady. We meet her on her first day at St Valentine’s College, a Catholic high school somewhere in Auckland. At first everyone in her class is confused by this beautiful girl with the long, shining black hair who is dressed in a boy’s uniform. She is introduced to the class as Lewis by an ebullient, joyous, sunbeam of a teacher, Mr Jensen (Edwin Beats), who is quickly told by Lewis/Lisa that it’s Lisa: no mucking around. Some of the kids catch on, some don’t and some don’t choose to.

In the barrage of charm that follows, all the common gender and sexuality abuse is heard with ‘faggot’ being among the most offensive and most often used. There’s also the laughter of kids comfortable with each other, happy to have a target for their need to aggressively ‘point the finger’ at someone else to avoid it being turned on them. At best, the response to having Lisa in the class is one of derision and exclusion. By ten minutes in I anticipate the ending being nowhere short of Sissy Spacek at the burning conclusion of Carrie; this, I decide, is definitely not going to end well.  

I should have known better. 

To digress slightly, and to put this work into a solid cultural context, it’s worth reminding you that some of these actors appeared in Teen Faggots Come to Life during the Pride Festival in February 2014 and Prescott-Faletau herself starred in Victor Rodger’s spectacular Girl on a Corner, again with Pride, in February 2015. All have worked extensively with either PIPA or one of the numerous performance companies that appear, morph, and rematerialise in other forms in South Auckland, creating, influencing and shaping a new and vibrant queer Pacific theatre south of the CBD.

The work they do is seriously redesigning the theatrical map in the region and, in my opinion, these kids are an inspired force to be reckoned with. They don’t shy away from the ugliness that empowers them and they support each other with a fearless passion that we should all thoroughly admire. An example of this laudable hunger is the simple fact that, with no disrespect to the cast in any way at all, there is as much refined and experienced talent in the audience as there is on stage on the night we see the play and the fāmili feel in the theatre is incredibly powerful.

There are some raucous teenage jokes that please deeply – Uncle Andy who became Aunty Bubbles was a winner – and even Jesus doesn’t get away scot free. The playwrights ease transgender issues into their text but in smart ways that never seem laboured. There’s the issue of school uniforms for trans kids, concerns about who uses what toilets and the eternal chestnut of who can legitimately be friends with whom.

There are the other teenage issues as well, the ones that aren’t locked into gender or sexuality but are far more generic, and the universal green-eyed monster jealousy plays a big part in how this narrative plays out; that and the fragility of personal identity that haunts each and every teenager on the planet. 

Lisa pals up with Brittany (the gorgeous Lyncia Muller) who is also Tongan and so the ice separating Lisa from the other kids begins to break. Not so for head girl Sia (Jahna Batt) however. She reeks of privilege and she’s not going to give way to anyone, least of all some newby, fakaleiti faggot. 

We meet the boys. They’re hard case and testosterone driven. It’s basketball, rugby and girls, girls, girls for them because some things never change. Lisa isn’t excluded but nor is she all that welcome, especially by Sia who has her eyes on rugby star Moses (Hannz Jackson) and doesn’t plan on taking no for an answer. Clever Mr Jensen pairs the kids up for a class assignment on The Shawshank Redemption and Moses ends up with Lisa who helps him with his work. Brittany is paired with Leo (Isaac Ah Kiong) which seems to please both of them which leaves Sia infuriated at being put with the boy burdened with being the least attractive of the guys. He’s Demetri (Jono Soochoon) and it’s only quality acting that actually makes him seem any less of a hunk than Moses and Leo are. 

We begin to see subtle changes in the way Lisa is addressed. First Brittany starts to call her ‘she’ and then it’s Moses who takes this radical step. We get to hear some inner thoughts via voice over with live responses and, while it’s a clunky technique, the actors make it work well enough. It does serve to drive the play forward and the audience does need to get a peep at the character’s inner dialogue so maybe my criticism is carping, but I’ll let it stand anyway.

The boys are in magnificent voice and, prior to the big final of the secondary school rugby championship, they proudly sing the school song for their coach (the spunky Natasha Hoyland). Coach gives the boys a pre-match team talk, dripping – and I mean dripping – with sexual innuendo, and the audience laps up the witty writing as though it were Oscar Wilde. 

Lisa wants to go to the game but her Mum (beautifully underplayed by Lila Pese) won’t let her. She’s not really up to speed with this gender thing and we find out that Lisa’s father left home because he couldn’t deal with it either. It’s a sad fact for trans kids: family is as important to them, maybe more so, than it is for straight kids but so many parents just can’t cope. The result is living on the street is a reality we simply can’t deny.

Like all red-blooded girls Lisa goes anyway and we have the joy of seeing the most wonderfully choreographed rugby match ever. It’s funny and invigorating and man, can these boys move. No surprise, then, to find out that all the cast have performed successfully in dance shows as well. St Valentines win, and this should not have happened if my prediction of a doom and gloom ending was to play out as I have expected, so I began to revise my expectation until the boys drop the perfectly placed bombshell. It’s an exceptional feature of this work that, just when you think you know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t and something else does.

[Spoiler warning …]

The school ball is coming up and Demetri dares Moses to ask Lisa to be his partner and they agree that the dare will be lost if Moses kisses Lisa in front of everyone. Mose, of course, would lose face if he refused so he does as expected and accepts the dare.  

Demetri isn’t stupid though, far from it, and the field is now open for him to ask Sia who, under normal circumstances, would have expected to go with Moses. Leo and Brittany have got cosy and Moses, unbeknown to the others, is falling for Lisa and asks her to be his partner anyway which leaves a most unhappy – and angry – Sia to go with Demetri who promises her that, once Moses sees how beautiful she is, he’ll get jealous and want her back. After all, who would want to be with a fakaleiti in front of everyone when there are real girls available, and Sia is certainly is a real girl – and available.

The delightful Mr Jensen – “there will be no discrimination in my classroom” – has a chat with Lisa’s Mum and there is a moment to treasure as Mum suddenly understands what is happening with her daughter and her own epiphany is complete. This is wonderful scripting and a special moment, but the problem still exists: what will happen at the ball? At this point I haven’t entirely given up my disaster scenario but the hope of a Cinderella ending is glimmering as a possibility. What if … I ask myself?

With the simple addition of a couple of mirror balls, a string of silver flags across the back of the stage and some adroit lighting changes (Rachel Marlow) the Basement stage becomes a classy dance venue and the St Valentine’s School Ball becomes a fairy tale reality. The boys look dishy in their tuxes and the girls all look fabulous in their gowns with the most marvellous being – of course – Lisa.

Dancing happens, Sia becomes impatient, Moses kisses Lisa and all hell breaks loose. With almost sickening glee the wager is exposed and a devastated Lisa simply doesn’t know what to do. Moses does, however, and he shuts everyone up by simply kissing her again and the audience erupts with delight. The princess has her prince, they are crowned king and queen of the ball, and all ends happily in the glow of true fairy tale joy. There can be a happy ending for trans kids after all. [… ends]

As I wipe away my own tears, I soundlessly congratulate Amanaki and Leki from the bottom of my heart for a fabulous job done brilliantly well. Such a clever script that says everything it needs to say and turns what is so often not the reality of living life as a transgender person absolutely on its arse.  

I leave the theatre knowing I am blessed with my own family who so often rescue me from the horrors of living openly, as I do, and I celebrate the success of these subtle and highly successful young people. What a fantastic – in the true meaning of the word –concept this is and how well it is realised.

It has to be said that Khloe Lam Kam as Lisa is a real find. She’s a lovely actor, powerful when necessary but always eminently likeable. Edwin Beats, the consummate professional, makes the quirky Mr Jensen live and gives me some confidence that our catholic education system will, at some point, lurch knowingly into the 21st century.

Lyncia Muller as Brittany is delicious and I’ve long been a fan of Isaac Ah Kiong, but it’s Hannz Jackson as Moses whose honesty and courage has most blown me away. The two least likeable characters are definitely Demetri and Sia and it’s to the great credit of Jono Soochoon and Jahna Batt that they’ve brought these individuals to life, warts and all, with such total commitment that I feel I will seriously dislike them for a long time to come. Not the actors, mind you, they have my complete respect. 

There is much about this work that is undeniably flawless and much of this success sits firmly at the door of director Fasitua Amosa. It’s terrific work, seamless and heartfelt, and he deserves everyone’s thanks. He certainly has mine.

The stars of the evening in my book, however, are writers Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Leki Jackson-Bourke. They’ve created a modern day fairy tale with teeth and claws, a real heroine to truly admire and I’d truly love to see this show again. It has subtlety, theatrical cunning, astonishingly good craft and the names in the ‘special thanks to’ section of the programme suggest that they’ve had the wisest of wise council throughout the process as well. There’s nothing as good as collaboration and Pacific playwrights know this better than anyone. 

Auckland Theatre Company has used it resource-rich basket to feed this process and I have little doubt they, and we, will be rewarded thoroughly. 

More please.


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