It’s great walking into Q Theatre for the opening night of AloFA to see a more representative demographic. Q’s full house, boasting a cross section of Auckland’s growing diverse population, is a huge coup.
Centre stage are two graves covered with Samoan siapo (tapa cloth), fala moe (sleeping mats), a mosquito net – complemented by the backdrop adorned with an arch of fans. The set is simple yet effective as touring sets should be. However, it does feel a tad overwhelmed by the scale of Rangatira Theatre’s large stage.
The story follows eldest son Niko who returns home to Samoa after 25 years in NZ. He is immediately confronted with the consequences of his long absence following the death of his mother Alofa (which means love) – the family matriarch.
The premise is a noble one, where secrets and lies affect a family’s dynamic, ultimately shaking it to its core. The story gradually unfolds with familiar contrasting themes such as sending money home from NZ versus the sacrifice of caring for family in the Islands. The key characters are brothers Niko played by Iaheto Ah Hi (Sione’s Wedding, Black Faggot, Club Paradiso) and Lone played by Ali Foa’i (Falemalama, Birds, Thirsty), who represent both of these pathways. An underlying hint of past family violence and rejection also pervades the dialogue as the younger characters fight and bicker, blaming and resenting each other. The inevitable reconciliation is cleverly handled using a ‘shoe leather’-style bonding montage, through greatly effective lighting design.
Both Ah Hi and Foa’i give great performances and essentially carry the show. Unfortunately the outcome of this is telling and slows down the pace, particularly in the first half.
We are told in retrospect that the writer, director, set, sound and lighting designer are all one in the same person, i.e. Fiona Collins (recently returned from a decade teaching at the National University of Samoa). And this is no mean feat. However, we couldn’t help wondering whether she could have benefitted from an outside eye. Perhaps a dramaturg would have been able to assist in making those tough decisions, to remove overly superfluous segments.
However, the second half does pick up the pace with multiple revelations covering a plethora of Pasifika societal challenges in short order. Many of the expository segments, with the stark lighting, end up looking rather amateurish which lose us as audience members. And perhaps more effective use of sound could have heightened this production’s pathos.
By the end we do care about the characters and their struggles. But despite the story being told with immense heart, for which we commend Collins, this piece needs more work to realise its full potential.
AloFA as a play asks many questions: “What defines a good man?” “To what extent should culture and religion impinge and distort basic loyalties and morality?” Fortunately, AloFA doesn’t try to resolve these issues completely but instead shines the spotlight on some uncomfortable truths.
May AloFA have a long life as it covers important Pasifika cultural themes that remain prevalent to this day.
AloFA played at Q Theatre 20 to 21 September as part of a North Island tour. It plays Māngere Arts Centre 25 to 27 September.