Wild Dogs Under My Skirt speaks volumes to the intersection of fa’asāmoa (traditional Sāmoan) and diasporic upbringing. Having been a NZ-born cis-queer-male of Sāmoan descent, the performance highlights the various women I grew up with and hold dear to my heart. Although Tusiata Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt collection of poetry was published in 2004, the spoken text is still and perhaps even more relevant in today’s non-binary age. Avia spent many years touring the work as a solo performance, but for the Auckland Arts Festival it is performed as an ensemble piece, following F.C.C’s (founded by Victor Rodger) iteration at the Māngere Arts Centre in 2016 under the direction of Anapela Polata’ivao. The pairing of Avia’s unapologetic voice and Polata’ivao’s vision is a match made like no other. The poems stem from Avia’s personal experiences and challenges the cultural collision through a Pasifika female lens.
On opening night of the Auckland Arts Festival production the cast only consists of five (down from the usual six) – Stacey Leilua and Joanna Mika-Toloa (from the Māngere Arts Centre production), Anapela Polata’ivao, Saane Green (who joined the cast for Wellington’s New Zealand International Festival version of the play in 2018) and lastly, Vaimaila Urale Baker in her acting debut. We miss Petmal Lam (a proud fa’afafine who received the Outstanding Newcomer Award at the Auckland Theatre Awards 2018) due to unforeseen circumstances. Although we don’t see Lam’s important interpretation on a female role, it was shared by Polata’ivao and Mika-Toloa on the night. Even having read the disclaimer, any disruption to the rehearsed piece is undetectable, which again reflects the powerhouse direction by Polata’ivao.
The choreography by Mario Faumui is graceful and is beautifully executed by the entire cast, particularly Stacey Leilua who portrays Tusiata (1 of the 6 roles). Leilua’s grounding and extension in her movements is an opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief as we transition from the weight of the spoken text.
The set design by Jane Hakaraia and set artwork by Tyla Vaeau are visually inviting, a crossroad between a traditional and contemporary domestic environment. Although very simple, the intricate cut of each nofoa on stage, gives each character a different personality, which is also highlighted by each cast member as they represent various facets of Pasifika (but more specifically Sāmoan) women. The lighting design and operation by Rachel Marlow is pure magic, particularly in using different states for the backdrop to signal a change of environment for each scene. The scene transitions are breathtaking, particularly when they literally take us to church, and are echoed by the vocals of the cast as they transform into the au fai pese.
Fellow Pasifika reviewer, Cassandra De La Croix shared her perspective with me: “Like the first bite of pisupo, your gut is left feeling heavy but your heart is fulfilled with delight as if letting go of that secret you’d been holding back from your mother for many years. The corned beef that sat there on a stool, taunting and tantalising the audience in the beginning reminded me so much of the multi layered and complex polynesian women standing before us on stage. Each wove their own experienced pain and recognised strength in every word they spoke, you couldn’t help but reply back with a shared knowledge and watering eyes.”
Other highlights of the show for me include Green’s performance of the poem O le pi tautau with her deft portrayal of adolescent intellect, cleverly using the Sāmoan alphabet as her reference. Mika-Toloa captivates the audience with her interpretation of the poem Alofa, showcasing the calibre and range of the emotional performance. But none of these performances come close to the show-stopping powerhouse, Polata’ivao. Her portrayal and performance of the poem Pa’u-stina gave me chills. The energy in the theatre shifts, as the room silences to hear her booming voice as it escalates, leading into the final poem Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. The other members of the cast are now on all fours, barking at us. It’s very confronting and I’m afraid to blink in case I miss any second of this captivating sequence. The poem is recited by each of the leading women as they share parts of the poem which connect them back to their original characters. In the moment I feel like someone has kicked me in the gut. But having a brief discussion with Pasifika poet, Dr Karlo Mila, as I leave the venue for the night, no one best describes this feeling better than her, which she describes, “…as a punch in the vagina.”
Avia’s work is bold, unapologetic and definitely has something to say; it speaks for woman by giving them a voice, and striving to normalise Sāmoan womanhood and bringing them to the forefront of society. Having had the luxury to be taught by Tusiata Avia once and being familiar with her work, I respect the pathway she has paved for other young emerging Pasifika voices today. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is a treasure and truly one-of-a-kind. It’s for people like my sisters, cisters, fa’afafine, aunties, mother and grandmother. Its for Sāmoan women. And men. I say, it’s for everyone in need of finding the wild dog that lives within us all.
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is co-produced by Silo Theatre and plays at Q Rangatira until 11 March.