Pacific Underground’s influence as a landmark theatre company has deeply shaped our nation’s theatre canon, particularly through works such as Dawn Raids, A Frigate Bird Sings, and Niu Sila. So The Court Theatre’s revival of seminal Fresh off the Boat, the very first play Pacific Underground ever did (in 1993), is a significant acknowledgement of the company’s place within the New Zealand’s cultural landscape.
Co-written by Oscar Kightley and Simon Small, the play fuses family sitcom with domestic tragedy in equal measure. While evidently a product of the 90s, instead of trying to resist this, director Tanya Muagututi’a’s production leans into the time period, evoking the nostalgic aura of a bygone era. The only textual adjustments are in relocating it from Auckland to Christchurch, which only accentuates a city that exists in the landscape of memory, a Christchurch yet to be threatened by the calamity of earthquakes.
The premise is relatively straightforward, painting a lovable portrait of a Pasifika family, headed by matriarch Elizabeth (Sela Faletolu-Fasi) and her two daughters Evotia (Talia-Rae Mavaega) and Ula (Josephine Mavaega). There’s also the lovable side characters of Mervyn (Roy Snow) and Samoa (Albany Peseta). The personalities of this lineup are enough to fuel a riotous comedy, but the complacency of this happy life is disrupted upon the introduction of Elizabeth’s younger brother Charles (Jake Arona), who informs the title of the play.
In recreating more innocent times on stage, it’s also difficult not to compare contemporary identity politics in response to the work. What stands out in particular for me is the politics of family friend Samoa, who frequently quotes the philosophy of Malcolm X. This channeling of a radical activist of colour feels more pertinent than ever in our deeply unsettling political climate, and leaves me hungry for more. On the other hand, the representation of Charles can feel like an outdated stereotype at times. Though played wonderfully by Arona, this examination of Samoan toxic masculinity feels unfinished. A brutal beast of a man, I am desperate for a deeper understanding of what makes him tick. His drunken monologue later in the play attempts to lay his unspoken insecurities wide open for us to see, but doesn’t quite resolve his arc in a satisfying way.
The women of the piece are beautifully embodied by Faletolu-Fasi, Talia-Rae Mavaega and Josephine Mavaega respectively. Each actor presents a different shade of feminine strength, their curiosity and hunger for new experiences etched into their actions. They’re the sort of lovable characters entire tv shows are built around.
It immediately makes one wonder what the play would look like written now – or for now – rather than simply transposed as a period dramedy. The racial tension between Snow’s earnest Pākehā Mervyn and Arona’s macho bully Charles would play very differently in 2019. Some of the racial stereotypes feel especially dated, but it’s important to acknowledge that they represent real experiences and shouldn’t have to carry the burden of representing all Samoan culture – an unfair expectations often placed on POC works of art.
Tony De Goldi’s set design utilises a series of sliding walls to shift fluidly between the domestic home of the characters and the outside world. A wire fence in the background slyly suggests the prison some of the characters are stifled by without being too on-the-nose. It’s also fitting that the cast perform with the ease and comfort of a real family, making The Court theatre mainstage feel like a room of their own.
What Fresh off the Boat does best is show the culture clashes that can happen with a supposedly shared ethnic identity. The old traditions versus the new ways of living. It’s a fascinating tension that hasn’t aged one bit.
A highly entertaining evening that pays homage to giants of New Zealand theatre while also showcasing the best and brightest contemporary talent. It’s the play that started it all. Catch this essential part of theatre history. A history that I hope will continue far into the foreseeable future.
Fresh off the Boat plays Christchurch’s The Court Theatre until 9 November.