REVIEW: A Frigate Bird Sings (Southside Arts Festival)

Taofia Pelesasa and Peter Coates in A Frigate Bird Sings. Photo - Michael Smith

Fa’afafine = fabulous and fine [by Sharu Delilkan]

Taofia Pelesasa and Peter Coates in A Frigate Bird Sings. Photo - Michael Smith

I have to admit that when A Frigate Bird Sings premiered at the 1996 New Zealand International Arts Festival I didn’t get the chance to see it, for the simple reason that it was before I migrated to Aotearoa.

So I was keen to see what all the fuss was about with quotes like “A Frigate Bird Sings is a landmark in New Zealand theatre. You want to see pride in action, go see this,” from The Listener. And knowing that the script had been written by well-known personalities like Dave Fane, Oscar Kightley and Nathaniel Lees also helped pique my interest.

A Frigate Bird Sings is exactly what it was billed – funny, moving and a celebration of difference.

The insight into the trials and tribulations of being a fa’afafine really resonated with me. The treatment of the third gender’s often difficult social experiences was both subtle and heart-breaking – shedding light on a part of the Samoan culture that is often the butt of jokes in many Pacific Island plays.

The playwrights’ ability to give the fa’afafine such a strong and poignant voice definitely warrants commendation and makes A Frigate Bird Sings a show that should be seen by one and all. And although fa’afafine’s are one of the essential elements in most Pacific Island shows we’ve seen at the Mangere Arts Centre, this one was different because it tackled the third gender’s identity – something that is rarely delved into.

It also shows the maturity of the festival’s curator Leisa Siteine to choose this as the theatrical piece to open the Southside Arts Festival.

Despite having been written more than 15 years ago the universal theme of tolerance is still very relevant, particularly given the current debates about legalising gay marriage.

I suppose the fact that Fane and Kightley are so famous for their humour makes the gravity of the themes being tackled in the play all the more effective.

The ensemble cast did an amazing job holding the audience’s attention and tickling their funny bone just enough to emphasise some home truths. Especially touching is the relationship between the straight rugby playing brother Sione (Troy Tu’ua) and Villi (Taofia Pelesasa) his oh-so flamboyant brother and self-confessed ‘embarrassment of the family’. The love between the siblings is sometimes overshadowed by Villi’s need for validation and company with her own ‘kind’.

The drama is brought to a head early on in the piece by the effect the untimely death of the all important matriarch of the family has on the father Kapili, acted flawlessly by Dave Fane who plays a very flawed man who has recently lost the love of his life. Kapili’s resignation to his fate and his decision to pass on the torch to his eldest son diametrically opposes his description of Villi: “I made a son and ended up with a daughter.” The father’s struggle between his own despair and dislocation as well as his attempts to understand his eldest son/daughter is multilayered – angry at times, as well as heart-rending and often that of avoidance seeking solace in his whisky bottle resulting in belligerence.

For me the banter and relationships between the three fa’afafine formed the core of the play. And although at times some of the dialogue was a tad dated, having been written more than a decade and a half ago, the play still amused and educated us. Some of the more colourful hysterical scenes could possibly be updated and focused a bit more but the acting of all the fa’afafines was exceptional – Pelesasa’s troubled and put upon elder sister of the family was brilliant, as was the always attractive handsomely acerbic-tongued Drag queen Shaniqua (Amanaki Prescott) as well as the grounded and deceptively sensible Deja vu (Shimpal Lelisi), who provided the perfect foil for Shaniqua’s antics on and off stage.

The token Palagi Hugh, played with great intelligence and restraint by Pete Coates, honestly revealed the clear line between what is said and done in private and what is socially acceptable in public, with devastating consquences for our heroine. The scene between him and Villi is one of many gems in the show, astutely directed by Alison Quigan.

John Parker’s set is simple yet effective, which is the hallmark of his genius. I actually managed to speak to Parker after the show asking him whether the fabrics hanging from the ceiling were meant to be tapa cloths. Thankfully he set me straight saying that they were meant to look and were indeed mats from the $2 shop, which would be typical in a Pacific Island family living in New Zealand that had been disconnected from their culture.

A Frigate Bird Sings is an entertaining evening, definitely worthwhile seeing. And it is so great to see the likes of Fane, Kightley and Lees using their comedic skills for the power of good. The message of tolerance of those that are different from the mainstream is an important one and should be applauded – not just in a theatrical setting but more importantly in the way we ought to treat each other in real life.

Come support the Southside Arts Festival, watch, enjoy and maybe even learn…

Auckland Theatre Company presents A Frigate Bird Sings which plays at the Mangere Arts Centre until 20 October. Details see Southside Arts Festival

SEE ALSO: review by Johnny Givins

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