Inside the aiga
By Joel Tannenbaum
Special to The Advertiser
By Joel Tannenbaum
"OK, that was pretty awful," says director Dennis Carroll. "Let's do that again." It's a Monday night rehearsal for Albert Wendt's "The Songmaker's Chair," which makes its Hawai'i debut Thursday at Kumu Kahua Theatre.
The play is the first Samoan-themed work for Kumu Kahua. Set in Auckland, New Zealand, the story of intergenerational conflict and reconciliation within a Samoan family represents an effort to reach out to Samoan viewers and highlight issues not commonly considered in American theater.
Opening night is three weeks away, and the mostly nonactor ensemble has just moved from its UH-Manoa rehearsal space to Kumu Kahua's tiny Merchant Street theater. The unfinished set is causing problems: The lauhala mats are cramping up in the corners. Someone stumbles over one of the cushions on the floor.
The chair on which the patriarch of the Peseola clan rests is empty — Kumu Kahua mainstay Wil T.K. Kahele, who plays the lead role of Peseola Olaga, is out sick. As the work's literal and figurative anchor, Kahele's presence is sorely missed by the rest of the cast members, as they struggle to block the first act.
Fata Simanu-Klutz, who plays Pese's wife, Malaga, also is feeling under the weather. Like much of the cast, she doesn't have her lines down yet. "I'm a bit distracted," she admits during a 10-minute break.
When they wrap up for the evening, white-haired, bespectacled Carroll seems agitated. "I don't know what's happening tonight," he tells the cast. "I know we're in a new space. Try and get it together."
SAMOA ON STAGE
The half-Samoan Wendt pulls no punches — heavy drinking, mild drug abuse and violence are intertwined with intense religiosity and fierce familial loyalty as the children, grandchildren and spouses of the Peseola aiga arrive at the family home. They've been summoned by Pese for reasons that become clear in the second act.
Harry Wong III, Kumu Kahua's artistic director, hopes "The Songmaker's Chair" will engage O'ahu's Samoan communities.
With Wendt based on O'ahu as the UH Citizen's Chair for this academic year, the work was a logical choice.
"A lot of the issues for this family in New Zealand will be the same for (Samoans that live here)," says Wong. "But then it's getting them to try to come to the theater. I guess in New Zealand and Australia, because they were British colonies, they obviously have an arts council like they have in England, where theater is subsidized, so there's quite a lot of good theater being done there. So the native populations there have a lot of performers and writers who are writing specifically for them."
For Carroll, "The challenges have been partly cultural. I don't know a great deal about Samoa," he says on an overcast morning in UH's Sustainability Courtyard.
For one thing, the almost bilingual script had to be altered. "Our lead is not Samoan," he says, "so we're trying to reduce the amount of Samoan dialogue in the set."
PLAY IN PROGRESS
A week later, progress is evident. The cast did a straight run of Act 1 the night before, and is scheduled to run Act 2 tonight. The lauhala mats have been fixed to the floor with double-sided tape, and the loose cushions have been placed atop wooden crates in the corners of the set. Before rehearsal can start, however, there is the matter of untangling two of the more heavily choreographed scenes from the previous night.
One involves an argument between Pese and Malaga. Kahele has decided that, at the height of the confrontation, he will raise his arm as if to backhand Simanu-Klutz — otherwise there is no clear cue for Jackie Tufa-Marques, who plays their granddaughter Mata, to intervene.
Carroll supports Kahele's decision, but most of the cast agrees that this intimation of physical violence dramatically changes the play's dynamics.
"So now we know that Peseola beats his wife?" asks Talavou Avegalio, who plays son Frank.
Wendt has kept a low profile in the production but arrives tonight during the run-through of Act 1.
Chatting outside the theater, Wendt, snappily dressed in crisp trousers and button-down shirt, explains where the play fits into the bigger picture of Pacific writing. "There's this wonderful literature that has grown up in the Pacific, written by indigenous writers, about indigenous peoples. It's probably the newest literature in English."
"The Songmaker's Chair" debuted in Auckland in 2003 to sold-out crowds and critical enthusiasm. As with that production, Wendt is taking a laissez-faire approach to this one.
"I've deliberately stayed out of everything because I don't want people to feel that I'm looking over their shoulder. Even in Auckland, I didn't even go to the casting. I completely trusted the director and everybody else with whatever they wanted to do with the play."
Audiences generally were receptive to the play's warts-and-all depiction of family life, but some criticism was inevitable.
"People don't like the dark side of themselves being shown publicly," says Wendt. "The middle classes especially don't like it. But they know that there is a dark side, that there's a problematic side to all people. There's no culture I know in the world that doesn't have a violent side. But it also has these other beautiful sides of love, generosity and humor. I try to show all different sides of a family."
Assistant director Christina Silipa originally was approached to play Joan, the wife of Fa'amau, Pese and Malaga's oldest son. Like the character, Silipa is a white woman married to a Samoan and speaks the language. She passed on the role due to a scheduling conflict, but her son Fa'i wound up as Hone, the Maori husband of Nofo, Pese and Malaga's daughter. Nofo is played by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, the writer whose "Fanny and Belle" had a successful run at Kumu Kahua in 2004. The role of Joan eventually was taken by Victoria's niece, Maui native Hina Puamohala Kneubuhl.
As Silipa prepares to spend this evening's rehearsal feeding lines to the cast members, she beams with enthusiasm.
"I watch this every night," she says, "and every night I get more emotional."
More than 6 1/2 feet tall, long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Fa'i Silipa smokes a cigarette on the wheelchair ramp outside the theater, awaiting his next cue. As with the rest of the cast, he juggles the rehearsals with other responsibilities. Fa'i works the night shift at Park Air Express at the airport, and rides his bike to rehearsals from his home in Makiki.
Fa'i was impressed from the outset by the script's realism. "There's a lot of things in the script that are actually true, and when we did the reading, a lot of Samoans, the ones who are actually from Samoa, not the ones who were raised out of Samoa, were offended by some of the things. They said 'How can you put that up there on stage for everybody to see?' Samoans, they're known for putting out this public image. Whatever happens within the house or within the aiga stays within the aiga."
Fa'i thinks this is a positive development. "Albert Wendt, he's an honest writer. And he's true to life." He has been "promoting the hell out of this thing" with his Samoan coworkers, going so far as to offer to buy tickets, "if in return they'll go back to their family and church and spread the word about it."
Act 1 ends. The show's first full run-through is half over and the cast's air of confidence is noticeable. Kahele steps outside to catch his breath. As the play's lead, he appears in most of the scenes. He is pleased with the troupe's progress. "It's really started to come together. We've become a real family."