Mele Kanikau - A Pageant by John Kneubuhl

Fale Pasifika, University of Auckland, Auckland

02/05/2013 - 05/05/2013

Production Details

‘Listen…and remember. For it is only in our remembering that we can make our mele, like houses of words into which our dead can move and live again and speak to us…’

Mele Kanikau (anthem of lamentation) – A Pageant is a Hawaiian story written in 1975. Set in Waikiki, A Hula Pageant is rehearsed for the tourists on the island. But behind the scenes a triangle of lovers and a story of deep-seeded betrayal is revealed between Carl Alama (Rob Williams), a successful Hawaiian travel agent, Noa Napo’oanaakala (Leroy Lakamu) a Kumu Hula from a native settlement, and Noa’s haole wife Frances (Ana Corbett) who was once betrothed to Carl.

Hawaiian dance and music weaves through out the story. A live band led by Musical Director Misipele Tofilau play traditional Polynesian instruments and accompany mesmerizing Hula dancers as they dance Hawaiian hula – both modern and ancient.

Writer John Kneubuhl was arguably the first playwright of Pasifika descent to have his works produced professionally in Aotearoa New Zealand. As the son of a Samoan mother and an American father, Kneubuhl’s multicultural heritage influenced a distinctive artistic vision that is enchanting.

Welcome to our mele. 
Malo ‘aupito. 
Fa’afetai lava. 

Lead Cast: Leroy Lakamu, Rob Williams, Ana Corbett, Lauie Sila, Olive Asi, Ole Maiava.

90 mins

Cultural essence thoroughly examined

Review by Aaron Taouma 04th May 2013

Entering the University of Auckland’s Fale Pasifika on any given day is an experience. It stands out as Auckland’s largest piece of Pasifika architecture; adorned and surrounded by art pieces by some of New Zealand’s most prominent Pacific Island artists. It’s described as the spiritual home of the University’s Pacific community and as such a symbol of identity. But tonight it is transformed.

The transformation: the usually transparent doors and windows are blacked out, the set is boxed within the centre of the high beamed elongated fale by draping blacks to make walls; billowing tapa plumes from the ceiling and the seating both on the floor (on mats) and benched seats in a traverse setting. It feels like a real community theatre.

The set (by Raukura Turie) is simple but effective, as you enter through the blacks at the door and  transported to what could be described as a hula hut, 1970’s Hawai’i; two cane chairs sit atop a small low lying stage covered in lei, tapa and Polynesian garb at the far end, while a writer (the Author, played by Lauie Sila) sits typing at a desk.

Once seated, the Author introduces himself not only as the “Author” but indeed John Kneubuhl (the writer) himself, or at least the representation of him in the context of telling this story. He at once fills two spaces; in his living room writing the play, and standing before the audience narrating the story. This play on plays, shifting the Author between being a narrator and Kneubuhl himself commenting on the process of play-writing and his own internal struggles is a recurrent theme and played well by Sila, who portrays appropriate presence in the role without being overly disruptive or underwhelming.

The director Michelle Johansson has a large cast – from Toi Whakaari graduates to her own stable of Black Friars Theatre Company (Michelle being the Creative Director of the company) and those with no experience – I count twenty-eight in all on the programme note; as well as six musicians.

The play itself is a piece of masterful writing; a play within a play, examining the theatrical process itself while weaving multiple story threads together in a seemingly simple plot, which as it progresses is not so simple, and indeed nothing is what it seems. Kneubuhl, of Samoan and American descent, a contributing writer to television shows such as The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West, Star Trek, The Invaders and Hawaii Five-O through Mele Kanikau (part of a trilogy of Plays; “Think of a Garden” and “A Play, A Play” the other two) provides an insight into the world of Hawaiians progressively being Americanised and losing the very things that make them Hawai’ian; their language, culture and belief in the mystical nature of nature. This is instead replaced by tourist pageantry, a denial of “authentic” Hawaiian-ness and ending in a half-hearted plastic portrayal of their very own culture.

We meet Carl Alama (Rob Williams, who plays the move from straight-laced-guy to severely internally conflicted well) as he prepares his cast of dancers for the opening of “The Pageant,” a contrived tourist oriented show filled with part-Hawaiians presenting a paradisaical grand Hawai’i of old they only know through pale imitation of tourist expectations. 

This misrepresentation of culture is confronted through the character Noa, played wonderfully by Leroy Lakamu in the stand-out and central performance of the night, as he and his troupe descend upon the rehearsals and take-over. His pageant within a pageant in contrast is an earthy, erotic and passion-filled hula (choreographed by Aruna Po-Ching) bringing out the essence of what it means to be Hawaiian in the space where dark and light meet.

 The ensuing conflict between Noa, Carl and Noa’s wife Frances (Ana Corbett, in a controlled portrayal impressing with her proficiency in Hawaiian speech) plays out the story of a love triangle, betrayal and a past which haunts Carl in his present as a successful travel agent. On Carl’s side we find Lydia (Olive Asi in a strong performance) supported by the other members of the old troupe, all very much in denial of everything Noa and Frances represent – a denial of love, aloha and their Hawaiian past. Noa, Frances and their troupe the representation of that culture lost in the “murmuring dark.”

Mele Kanikau means “song of mourning” (mourning for the loss of the true Hawaiian culture) and is the practical component of director Michelle Johansson’s Creative PHD, of which she edited the script with little loss of critical material,and her direction allows for the easy flow of action, two-way dialogue, narrative interjection, musical interludes (led by Misipele Tofilau) and some wonderful dance and song moments — though it’s not all happy island dancing, with some serious dramatic and contemplative moments. The use of lighting (by Nik Januirek) is space specific and uses a simple rig to achieve good effect; moving audience attention from one piece of action to another with relative ease. 

The hula by Aruna Po-ching mixes both kahiko (ancient) and auana (modern) forms in an original interpretive mix adding flavour and some stand-out choreographic moments, adding to the acting, the music and song – all well played and an enjoyable night leaving this audience member, at least, wanting to see another run.


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