Play explores challenges of Samoans in Maori land
Speak fluent Samoan? Kumu Kahua's current production of "The Songmaker's Chair" is the show to see. Native-speakers in the opening-night audience laughed knowingly as cast members traded one-liners in Samoan, sang along during the musical numbers and called out words of praise and encouragement when individual cast members danced.
"The Songmaker's Chair"
Presented by Kumu Kahua.
When: Continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 15.
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Cost: Tickets are $5 to 16.
Call: 536-4441 or visit www.kumukahua.org.
A Samoan friend explained during intermission that it is customary to do so and that if there had been more Samoans in the audience, some would probably have gotten up and danced with the cast. "Everyone in Samoa knows these songs and dances," he said.
Those unfamiliar with Samoan culture who attend without a cultural adviser are left to figure things out as best as they can. So much of the dialogue is in Samoan that a glossary would only scratch the surface, but where the University of Hawaii would provide several pages of cultural background, Kumu Kahua provides nothing. There's no information on Samoan history or culture, and nothing on the specific cultural milieu of Samoans in New Zealand, where this story takes place.
Kumu Kahua veteran Wil T.K. Kahele stars as Peseola Olaga, the aging patriarch of the central family. Fata Simanu-Klutz is Pese's wife, Malaga. The experiences of the couple, their four children and their grandchildren neatly define playwright Albert Wendt's perspectives on the experiences of Samoans in New Zealand.
Pese and Malaga exchanged the security of their village for hard work and relatively menial jobs but gained the economic security to own a home and put their children through college. The oldest, Fa'amau, was born in Samoa, went to private school in New Zealand and married a Caucasian, Joan, who speaks better Samoan than some members of his family. Nofo, also born in Samoa, is married to Hone, a New Zealander who defines himself as Maori; they have two adult children who are well integrated in the larger society.
The younger children of Pese and Malaga, born in New Zealand, have not done as well. Frank is a struggling playwright and bodybuilder who lives in part on money from Malaga. Lilo has a history of drug and alcohol problems.
The characters' varied experiences illustrate issues of culture, acculturation and ethnic identity in compelling style. There's the uneasy balance between traditional pre-Christian Samoan culture and contemporary Christian values, the conflicts between Samoans and Maoris, and the universal experience of trying to make sense of an unfamiliar culture.
Pese recalls spending "nearly a week's wage" on 10 pounds of filet rather than admit to a palagi (Caucasian) that he hadn't understood a simple question. In contrast, their grandchildren felt like outsiders during a stay in Samoa.
All this and more is revealed as the family assembles at Pese's command, and Pese confronts his dreams of an owl, a recurring source of dread.
Kahele transcends ethnicity to gave a convincing performance as Pese. Sami L.A. Akuna (Fa'amau) stands out as the eldest son. D. Tafa'i Silipa (Hone) and Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl (Nofo) are well matched in playing survivors of a troubled but loving marriage.
Music consultant Kuki M. Tuiasosopo and sound designer Stu Hirayama make important contributions in amping up the cultural ambience with recordings by the American Samoa Community College Chamber Singers and the call of the unseen owl.