'Chair' Samoan drama of kin, traditions
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Albert Wendt's "The Songmaker's Chair" is both a Samoan identity play and a character drama about a strong-willed man's effect on his extended family.
In its best moments, the Kumu Kahua production, directed by Dennis Carroll, captures the necessary sense of "aiga,"or kin group, that gives the play its core. But much of the English dialogue is formal and unnatural, making one suspect that the Samoan lines that frequently arise may pack more authentic punch.
The family patriarch is Peseola (Wil Kahele), who — with his wife Malaga (Fata Simanu-Klutz) — emigrated from Samoa to New Zealand, seeking a better life for his family. Now in poor health, Peseola calls in his four children, two of their spouses, and a pair of grandchildren for a family conclave.
He is about to relinquish his role as head of the clan, and to announce the successor who will sit in the "songmaker's chair" — a simple wicker family heirloom that assumes throne-like status and almost mystical importance as a vessel of family secrets.
But before Peseola can transfer power, Wendt's plot must have the family members exorcise themselves of personal demons. In doing so, the dialogue fails the drama.
Exposition is crudely obvious, and has the characters telling each other background facts that they should already know.
Within minutes after arriving home for the visit, the 48-year-old elder son unloads a grudge of more than 30 years, demanding of his mother, "Why did you send me to boarding school?"
The elder daughter confronts her grown, estranged children with, "You two hate us, don't you?" And when the kin finally confront their patriarch, they do it in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" style: "Get ready Papa. I don't know if you'll be able to take this."
The production's strength comes instead from its choral numbers.
While "The Songmaker's Chair" is a straight play and not a musical, this is a family that entertains itself after dinner with songs, dances and stand-up comedy. In the long scene that ends Act One, Peseola and Malaga delight their offspring with a vaudeville act that comically re-enacts the family's origins. Youngest son Frank (Talavou Avegalio) then begins a spontaneous dance routine that quickly spreads until the entire group is singing and dancing — all save youngest daughter Lilo (Vaialofi Samifua), who petulantly nurses a threatening secret.
Director Carroll also uses group scenes effectively when the youngsters ask, almost ritualistically, "Papa, tell us about the ancient religions." Carroll arranges ranks of silent relatives to "witness" scenes in which they don't appear, effectively creating an intertwining continuity in which the actions of some members affect the entire family.
Ultimately, the question arises whether despotic application of tradition creates more harm than good, and whether stubborn adherence to all things Samoan is beneficial to generations born in a different society.
In that respect, the play's message transfers universally to all immigrant groups, while its Samoan focus adds cultural depth and richness.
With more naturalistic character development and interplay, "The Songmaker's Chair" could tell an effective human story.