Tuesday, September 20, 2005


UH scholar parlays
Polynesian experiences
into comedy

'Wild Dogs Under My Skirt'

Excerpts from a one-woman show by poet/performer Tusiata Avia:

On stage: 7 p.m. Monday

Place: University of Hawaii Center for Korean Studies Auditorium

Admission: Free

Call: 956-7700

Tusiata Avia once came across a comment in a travel article linking Samoans to cannibalism, via canned meat: "A writer had mentioned that Samoans liked the corned beef so much because it resembled the taste of human flesh."

She could have been offended, outraged, angry -- but Avia chose to take inspiration from the passage, using it as fuel for her performance piece "Wild Dogs Under My Skirt."

The poet, performer and children's book author holds the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writers' Residency at the University of Hawaii Center for Pacific Island Studies. As part of her three-month residency, she will present excerpts from her one-woman show next week.

Her reaction to the writers' comments began as poetry, then evolved from page to performance. "It really had an impact on me. It set me on the path to make more connections."

On stage, she normally opens a can of corned beef using a machete. "I eat the corned beef off the machete. It's a very 'in your face' piece. I link cannibalism in the past to this bad food and how it is killing us today."

Monday's performance, however, will go on without the machete. "It could be dodgy trying to get a machete through customs."

"Wild Dogs," she said, "tackles the stuff of life we all find hard to look at: violence, incest, abuse, racism, injustice and hypocrisy. The show is particular to Pacific peoples in New Zealand but is also immediately transferable to people everywhere.

"Most of the stuff I do is dark comedy."

The title, "Wild Dogs Under My Skirt," is the beginning of a poem that is a metaphor for the Samoan tattoo. "It is traditional for a woman to have a tattoo on her legs, one that is not able to be seen. It also reflects the traditions that are not seen in life, like cannibalism."

Avia's works explore her mixed Samoan and "palagi" (pronounced "palangi" -- Samoan for Caucasian) heritage. She moves between the cultures, only half belonging to each. "Being of mixed heritage pulls you in different directions," she said.

Her show expresses issues that will seem familiar to anyone who has ever felt like a minority: the search for identity, isolation, unearthing of the past and views from both dominant and minority cultures.

Avia has performed in New Zealand, America Samoa, Europe and Russia and has presented excerpts at a Pacific arts conference on Kauai.

Traveling has been a large part her life, she says.

"I have a unique perspective of being a Samoan New Zealander born in New Zealand who has spent the last decade in countries as far as Ethiopia and Syria. I carry all this with me, and much of the show is drawn from my own experience."

Her name, Tusiata, means artist. "I was named after my great aunt -- lucky, or perhaps prophetic."

From her writing springs the visual work that is a part of her show, which intertwines theater, poetry and dance. "It is an innovative art form, a hybrid of monologue, poetry, oral storytelling, drama and movement."

"Wild Dogs" is not her first performance piece, nor will it be her last.

In 2002, Avia co-wrote a radio drama program called "You Say Hawaii," broadcast on Radio NZ. "Basically it was the story of a young woman who is brought up by adoptive white parents believing she is a Hawaiian princess. The story begins when she meets her birth mother, a Samoan cleaner, and learns the history is nothing like she has believed."

She is working on a second theater piece, "Lapisi," and a new collection of poetry.

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