KUMU KAHUA THEATRE
Kumu Kahua presenting South Pacific expert's drama
The professor's play is about a Samoan family in New Zealand
THERE'S FINE literature, for the genteel among us, and then there's pure storytelling, with faces bright around a campfire, but it all boils down to telling what you know. For Albert Wendt, what he knows is this: The dynamic Samoan culture of his youth, of the youth of his parents and grandparents and others back in time, is disappearing, not so much being rubbed out as being diluted and leavened and ignored and orphaned.
Things change, and change brings both conflict and reflection, and out of that comes literature. Wendt, simply one of the best-known writers in -- and of -- the South Pacific, has won international awards for his novels and poetry. In the classroom he has inspired several generations of Pacific writers. Wendt, like all professors of writing, instructs students to write what they know.
ABOUT THE PLAY
Albert Wendt's "The Songwriter's Chair" tells of a family's journey through both space and time. It is the story of Samoan immigrants Peseola and Malaga, from '50s Samoa to modern New Zealand. Their children and grandchildren have been called together by Peseola for mysterious reasons. As they speculate on the patriach's motives, the siblings explore their shared past, individual hopes and griefs, and ruminate of dreams gained and lost. A family secret is revealed painfully at the climax.
'THE SONGMAKER'S CHAIR'
Albert Wendt's play about a Samoan family in New Zealand opens March 16:
On stage: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from March 16 through April 15
Place: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Admission: $5 to $16
Call: 536-4441 or online at www.kumukahua.org
This year, serving as the University of Hawaii's resident Citizen's Chair (he was visiting professor of Asian and Pacific studies at Manoa in 1999), Wendt is dipping his toes in the relatively new world of stage-bound drama with Kumu Kahua's production of his play "The Songmaker's Chair."
"I did some short plays back in the '70s," recalled Wendt, setting down his brushes for a few minutes -- he was painting a Manoa landscape. "Chair" was his first full-length play after a career of novels, poetry and screenplays. It premiered in 2003 at the Maidment Theatre in Auckland and had a sold-out run. "There's a very dynamic Pacific Island and Maori theater in New Zealand. A lot of young playwrights and actors have emerged over the last 15 years."
A play is an unusual group effort for someone who's been a solitary writer for most of his life, Wendt said. "I was lucky -- one of New Zealand's outstanding actors, Nathaniel Lees, agreed to direct it and acted the main role. And he's also a cousin of mine" -- laughing -- "I could talk privately to him but left it totally up to him. I never saw the whole play through during rehearsal, not even the dress rehearsal.
"I went to opening night prepared to be surprised, and I was very, very, very, very pleased with the acting and interpretation. Of course, it could have gone the other way and I would have collapsed in shock."
Lees' approach was minimal. No props, no set dressing, actions were mimed and actors not used at the moment sat at the edge of the stage until needed. Kumu Kahua's approach is a bit more traditional. No word on whether Wendt has been able to stay away from rehearsals.
Wendt was eying the rumpled beauty of the Koolaus, the arms of the mountains nestling Manoa. "I've been coming to Hawaii on and off since 1969. Manoa is a lovely valley to live in. It's sparked a lot of art out of me, and the first poem I ever wrote about Hawaii is called 'The Ko'olau,' about how I feel living in the valley and arriving from another country."
Born in Samoa, Wendt moved to New Zealand at 13. "Then I went back to Samoa and taught for about nine years. When someone asks where's my home. I tell them New Zealand Samoa, because Western Samoa is only three hours away from Auckland. I still have a lot of relatives in Samoa."
This background gives Wendt insight into the cancers of colonialism, and it informs much of his work, even if it isn't front and center.
"The heyday of colonialism devalued the whole culture, looks down on the arts of the indigenous people. In the first stage of colonization, you don't have even the languages of the Pacific taught in school, none of our literature or arts practiced. In some countries the very language was banned. Examinations of all that are in my novels. There are elements of that in the play, but that's not the main concern. But, yeah, it's always there in my head."
Writing fiction helped put it all in perspective. "I find writing fiction easier than anything. It gave me a lot more space to explore things. The characters you are putting into the novel actually emerge in the process of writing. I don't sort of sit down and work out what the novel is all gonna be about and how many people are all going to be in it, no. I start with an idea or an image and then explore it, and sometimes it goes into a short story, sometimes it expands into a novel. If it doesn't go anywhere, I leave it as a short story or something."
Colonialization is being replaced these days by its corporate offspring, globalization, and that takes examination as well: "There are a hell of a lot of small cultures and small places who don't want to give up their individuality, and they're fighting globalization all the way down the line, sometimes using physical force to resist it. There's no harm in having the Internet, e-mail -- I think they're wonderful -- but the media is being using to flood the world with a single philosophy."
On the other hand, the Internet has helped scattered cultures reconnect. "Some of the branches of our family have Web sites!" exclaimed Wendt. "It reinforces your family ties. You take the technology and use it for your own purposes."
Seizing the reins of modern communication has resulted in "a very rich Pacific literature emerging over the last 20 or 30 years, written by indigenous peoples," said Wendt. "The most number of them live in New Zealand; they happen to be Maori. There are quite a few here in Hawaii. Others, like me, scattered around the Pacific."
It's possible that the international literature of the 20th century is film. Some of Wendt's books have already been made into films, but now that he has a play on stage, he's trying his hand at a screenplay.
"I love movies! I see lots and lots of films, and I'm contracted to writing my first full-length feature. It's going to be -- no, I can't tell you! I've been sworn to secrecy about the main idea, but it's going to be set in Samoa in the 1920s. They wanted me to do the script on an idea they had, and they wanted it set somewhere else. I said, 'Sorry, if you want me to write the script, it'll be set in Samoa.'"
And in between landscape-painting and playwriting and screenplaying?
"I'm also working on a new novel, which is set partly in Hawaii and New Zealand and Samoa. I'm already about 80 pages into that," said Wendt, eying the ever-changing cloud formations sweeping off the Koolaus.
Sounds like Albert Wendt not only writes what he knows about, he insists upon it.
Friday, March 10, 2006
» Kumu Kahua's production of "The Songmaker's Chair" opens March 16. An article on Page D1 yesterday listed an incorrect date.