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Victor Rodger: The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop
"Twenty years ago I was an African American slave." Victor Rodger writes about Pasefika actors taking on African American roles ahead of FCC's latest production, The Mountaintop


Twenty years ago I was an African American slave. 

Nat Turner to be exact:  the slave who lead a bloody uprising against his oppressors in Virginia (most recently depicted in the controversial film Birth of A Nation).

It was all part of my graduation from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School. 

My year was pretty much evenly split between palagi students and Māori/Pasefika students so it was decided the palagis would do a play about witches by the palagi writer, Caryl Churchill and the Maori/Pasefika students (plus one palagi student) would do a play about slaves by the African American playwright, Robert O’Hara.

Whenever I relay this to African Americans they generally hit the floor laughing at the thought of my very fair skinned Samoan self in the role.

In the current contentious climate of identity politics, the thought of one race assuming the mantle of another, of telling another people’s story, remains controversial.

And yet for me, at the time, playing a black role felt a lot closer to me personally and more satisfying than any of the other roles I’d been assigned at drama school: such as a German headmaster; a British professor of phonetics; and a disco bird (yes: a disco bird).

In the current contentious climate of identity politics, the thought of one race assuming the mantle of another, of telling another people’s story, remains controversial.

But as a playwright, many of the works that speak to me are by African Americans and have frustratingly remain unproduced by the main stages of New Zealand: from classics such A Raisin in The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and Dutchman by Amiri Baraka through to An Octoroon and Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Using my entity FCC (FLOW, CREATE, CONNECT) to combat this, I started a series of play readings in 2015 by diverse authors so that these plays could at least be heard in New Zealand and that Pasefika practitioners especially could engage with meaty, complex texts that put them at the heart of the narrative.

Among the most popular FCC readings has been The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, featuring David Fane and Nicole Whippy, a beautiful story set on the last night of Martin Luther King’s life. David and Nicole were magical together in roles which stretched them in a way their TV and film work hadn’t.

Now FCC are mounting an actual production of The Mountaintop under the direction of Fasitua Amosa.

There remains some skittishness about Pasefika actors taking on African Americans roles – from both palagi and Pacific Islanders.

But as someone who feels so strongly that these plays need to be heard in New Zealand, It seems that this is an issue that African Americans and African Americans only should weigh in on.

And so I have reached out to a handful of acquaintances to gauge their reaction.  One – a doctor in Christchurch – put it best when she said: “I love the fact that another group of people on the other side of the world is embracing the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.  And, Pacific islanders like African Americans have experienced significant oppression because of their beautiful brown skin.  So, our histories parallel. We cannot forget history, for as the saying goes, then we are doomed to repeat it….your play is keeping history alive and conversation flowing.”

Amen to that.

The Mountaintop runs from October 31-November 11 at the Basement Theatre, Auckland.

Written by

Victor Rodger

30 Oct 2017