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Monday, March 04, 2024

REVIEW:The Savage Coloniser Show - By Tusiata Avia 29 Feb - 3 Mar 2024 Circa Theatre, Wellington Waterfront (Aotearoa New Zealand Arts Festival)

I came out of this show yesterday utterly stunned.  Tusiata Avia’s writing cuts like the sharpest machete.  No trope stands afterwards.  The blade of her poetry destroys every toxic plant in the weed garden of colonialism.  In this show, wounds will be slashed open, truths will ooze out.  Make no mistake.  This is a bloodletting.  

Combining poetry, dance, action theatre and fa’asamoa director Anapela Polata’ivao has once again delivered a triumphant performance.  Everyone was on their feet by the end.  Everyone.  Even the old 'white people' cowering behind their covid masks.  Including me. 

I’d read several accounts of this show all celebrating the diefiance of the writer.  It's based on Tusiata Avia’s Okham award winning book of poetry ‘The Savage Coloniser Book’ .   

The show is directed by Anapela Polata’ivao who has directed and acted in Avia’s previous ensemble stage play ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’, which made its New York debut in 2018 and was subsequently named winner of Fringe Encore Series at the Soho Playhouse.  

Donna Tusiata Avia MNZM (born 1966) is a poet and children's author, recognised for her work through receiving a 2020 Queen's Birthday Honour.  In 2021 her collection 'The Savage Coloniser Book' won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  This show appeared in March last year, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival and it went down exceptionally well.  Much of the cast came from ‘Wild Dogs ...’, joined by Mario Faumui and Iuni-Katalaina Polata’ivao-Saute in her acting debut.  Iuni-Katalaina was not in this season, at Circa, but Mario remains.     

This afternoon’s show is completely sold out.  Word has got out.  The audience is mixed.  Pacific faces, some with flower lei, blend in with the usual predominantly white middle-class theatre-goers.  Everybody is smiling and talking.  

The lights fade.  The pre-set is six chairs, each with a machete sheathed and mounted on the back, as if actor are was preparing to ride their chosen furniture off on some chivalrous task in the name of the Empire.    

There is an atmospheric haze in the red light.  And a gauze, stretched from the lighting bar to the floor across the who space creates a screen for projected images, and a frame of reference for the coming dialogue. The light represents blood, earth, courage, endeavour.  

At times the projected images provide a poignant white frame, a demarcation of a palagi perspective.  The presidium arch is a European concept, where the theatre has been elevated to high art, for the privileged, not the people of every day and every village.  Beginning in pre-colonial times, there is a spiritual element, with the voices of Samoan women whispered, spoken and then shouted by actors Stacey Lellua, Petmai Petelo, Joanna Mika-Toloa, IIaisaane Green and Katalaina Polata’ivao-Saute.  These are words of defiance.  They try to reclaim heritage and identity.  

Mario Faumui voices, with a booming dominance, the words written by colonialists and missionaries - Those who claim the land grabs and the slaughter at Parihaka.  They gleefully take the credit.  Describing this work, Avia has described these poems and subsequent theatre production as "looking really unflinchingly at racism, specifically in Aotearoa, but it’s incredibly universal, and colonisation, 250 years down the line, where we are now and how savaged we’ve been by it. That’s it, in a nutshell. (RNZ)” 

There are some ensemble and individual moments that will blow you away.  Polata’ivao’s direction elevates Avia’s poetry.  The words leap off the page and become like smoke in your nostrils, they enter and dominate you.  They are harsh, confronting, bitter, but true.    

Every actor is flawless, but even more than that – captivating.

Her poems cover a lot of ground: Colonial history and impacts on the Pacific, that’s obvious.  But more modern themes, too. 

There’s the speech by the well-meaning, but colour-blind Remuera housewife – racism aside, of course.  “C’mon you people, the past is in the past. Let it go.” 

Joanna Mika-Toloa tackles the Body Mass Index head on.  Did you know it was invented in 1832 by Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian statistician, mathematician, and astronomer, who, inspired by his passion for statistical analysis wanted to establish quantifiable characteristics of the "normal man."  Instead, it became a weaponised measure of credibility.  

In one poem Mika-Toloa debunks the myth and dismisses all the medical professionals who mis-judged her and forced her (or her character at least) into literally selling her body and soul to pay for medical care.    

Katalaina Polata’iva-Saute stands out in a piece that calls all brown creatives, in garages everywhere to ‘stop composing operas, writing theses, inventing and being creative' and join a gang, make a ‘smart’ career choice.  Clearly, it’s an ironic and well-deserved response to white repulsiveness.      

Mika-Toloa also delivers a spinetingling performance of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ and in another character, becomes the coolest, hippest ‘bad bitch’, claiming she and her posse of disgruntled girlfriends are gonna drive around the white suburbs looking for white women to beat up.  Yeah, cos that’s actually gonna happen – maybe after catching three buses home from the three cleaning jobs and making dinner, tidying up their overcrowded home, putting the kids to bed and... oh, never mind!  

‘The City Fathers’ doesn’t appear in the original book but is highly relevant.  It’s focus is the history of racism in Aotearoa, nd how it is still with us.  Celebrate, it states, acknowledge the statues of past colonists and add a new statue, in honour of that wicked Australian who caused the massacre in Christchurch in 2019.  It’s a name I will not write here.  But in the context of naming racists past and present, they do name him in the show.   Add him to the statues, in the city where Avia was born and raised, to prominent leaders of land grabs, a Minister of Native Affairs who ordered the invasion of Parihaka.  It’s a time when Māori were assimilated into western society.  When the reo was beaten out of those that spoke it.  But they were also segregated from Pākehā society.   

We all know that history underpins current thinking and that includes white supremacist thinking.  This is the past subverted and hurled back at the racists like bullshit it really is.  Avia’s writing is totally unapologetic.  

As can be read in the poem ‘250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand’ in which the cast confront the ghost of the man, and others “Hey James,” they shout, “yeah, you/in the white wig/in that big Endeavour/sailing the blue, blue water/like a big arsehole/F… YOU, BITCH!” 

Last year David Seymour sought to make political capital, claiming the Government was "funding hate" by supporting this show and that it was about "murdering James Cook, his descendants and white men like [him] with pig hunting knives". 

"The Government,” he spouted, ignorantly, and provocatively, “through Creative New Zealand, which taxpayers fund and whose board Ministers appoint, is supporting works that incite racially motivated violence." 

Pandering to his outraged blue rinse brigade he read the poem literally, claimed it was violence inciting.  For a man who thought dancing on TV would boost his like-ability, the irony was clearly lost on him. 

Act called on the Government of the day to withdraw $107,280 in ‘taxpayer money’ that supported the show and ‘apologise’ for "giving so much to racism in the first place".  (Newshub ). 

Suffice to say, that never happened.  

“What’s happened, basically, is my poem and my show,” retaliated Avia, “has been reduced down to a platform for the political right, and that is crap. That’s where the hate and the racism comes in. It’s creating more fear and more intolerance in this country, where we don’t need that. It’s pulling on the fears of people who have not been educated to know what colonisation even is.” (RNZ

Avia, in a sneaky last minute re-write adds a couple of lines in retaliation of PM Luxon and sidekick Seymour's latest stupidities.  It shows exactly why shows like this are needed. 

That it’s so easy to sweep racism under the carpet and ignore brown people, make them invisible, continue to celebrate founding fathers and keep history ignorant.   This show reflects ourselves back on ourselves.  

A mirror is used as a prop at times, blended with the transitions and choreography made so fluid by Tupua Tifagua.  

Lights dip and bend between ocean blues, waves and earth tones.  At one point the women transform into the mythical ‘dusky maidens’ of Paul Gaugin’s art and his colonisation of Tahiti (also his spreading of syphilis amongst the population and his paedophilia).  Avia doesn’t hold back cursing him and claiming he had partially destroyed the islands for ever.  

'The Savage Coloniser Show' is possibly the most honest and disruptive performance I’ve seen in a long time.  I found it uncomfortable, yet empowering.  I, as a white person, must own my colonial past and acknowledge what my tupuna did to all brown people, whether intentionally or not.  That will be painful.  But it must be done before we can move on.  

It's work like this that allow us to travel in the same waka through history, and that really helps.     The past isn’t in the past.  It’s with us right now.  This unapologetic piece is a stark reminded.  But it also is a cathartic approach.  This should be compulsory for anyone who smugly claims to know our history.  It’s a book they won’t have read.  And they really should.   

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