Wild Dogs takes a bite out of the Big Apple

Photo by Raymond Sagapolutele
Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele
How does it feel to bring NYC audiences to their feet? Extraordinary Samoan New Zealander Tusiata Avia, in her own words, on the emotional evolution of her signature show...

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Sitting in the Soho Playhouse in New York City, I watch the actors walk onto the stage. I've seen the show many times over the last three years but this time, as soon as the music starts and the actor who plays 'Tusiata' begins the opening dance, I begin to cry. The tears come all at once, in a huge swell. The last 19 years flash before me; slowly, but in a few seconds, the way they say the scenes of your life play out at the moment of your death. 

A labour of love: the evolution

2001: It’s the beginning of my career as a writer, I try out a ten-minute piece at an open mic in Wellington.

2002: I develop the piece into a 40 minute, one-woman show which debuts at the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

2004: a longer version is published as my first book of poetry.

2007:  by now the show has had the input of four directors - Jamie Bull, Mishele Muagututi’a, Tanea Heke and Rachel House - it is a 50 minute show with six characters, all of whom I play.

2009: I’m a solo mother of a two-year old and it’s too hard to keep performing a one-woman show while dragging my toddler around the world.   

2015: Victor Rodger (playwright and cousin) resurrects the show as part of his theatre movement, FCC’s play-readings.

2016: with Victor as producer, it is a seventy five-minute ensemble piece for six actors. It tours for the next three years picking up a swag of awards, including Best Production, Best Actress and Best Lighting (Auckland and Wellington Theatre Awards).

2020: I sit here in NYC and cry all the way through the show.

Whānau and Tautua

I was expecting a few ex-pat Kiwis to be among the audiences but I am completely floored when people arrive - night after night. Many of them off planes and buses, from Utah, Kentucky, Virginia, Washington DC, California,  San Francisco and Hawaii; people from the American Pasifika diaspora who have come especially to see this play.

This is better, more important than any review the play has received.

They nod and laugh and cry and clap and loudly ‘mmhmm’, as if this might be a revival meeting, some kind of religious experience. One young American-born Tongan woman has come from California. She looks at me with tears in her eyes and says, 'I'm an actor, but I don't see my body anywhere out there'. She smoothes her thighs, thighs like mine, like the women on stage. 'I feel good in my body, now I've seen myself on stage’. This is better, more important than any review the play has received. This, I remember, is also my tautua, my service to my community and the world. This is why I write.

Over the weeks, audience members are keen to talk about the emotional connection they experience. I hear this particularly from women but also from African Americans, white Americans, people of colour, old people, young people, queer and trans people. People clutch their chests, look me in the face and describe how they feel. People wait outside on the snow-covered footpath for the actors to appear. People want to express how the show affected them.

Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele

Making meaning

For those audience members (in NYC or closer to home) who are determined to be the masters of understanding; for those who are used to being experts; for those who are determined to take theatre apart like a mechanical device, bits of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt may feel frustrating. Not everyone is moved, some are confused - and I've got to say, the majority of those people (at least the ones I’ve met) have been white American men.

One night, I stood and watched as a man accosted my African American friend and demanded she explain the play to him. 'What do you think it was about?' she asks. He uses the words: native, tribal, exotic and trauma rather a lot, but I can see he is trying hard to figure it out. When he learns I am the writer, he turns to me – 'Well, am I right?'. I nod and tell him that however he experiences it, is how he experiences it. I'm not being airy-fairy; I believe that people receive poetry (because that is what the words of this play are) through their own lens. It speaks into their minds and hearts according to their own internal landscape. Poetry is expansive and many-layered and specific enough to allow this; to, in fact, encourage this. When the man looks at me quizzically, I suggest that it's not necessary to understand every word of this show. There are a significant number of words and phrases in Samoan, and all the English words are in a Samoan and/or Kiwi accent. It's not always necessary to understand this show logically via the brain. It is completely possible and valid to understand it via the manava, the belly; via the fatu, the heart.

I learned, during that international apprenticeship, that audiences don't need to understand the Samoan words or be familiar with the cultural references to be affected.

I learned this during my eight year training period. From 2002 - 2009 I performed Wild Dogs Under My Skirt in countries as far afield as Morocco, Israel and Russia. Audiences always responded. In an underground heavy-metal club in Moscow, people responded enthusiastically in Russian, gripping me by the shoulders, clasping their chests. I don’t speak Russian, but I understood how it affected them. I learned, during that international apprenticeship, that audiences don't need to understand the Samoan words or be familiar with the cultural references to be affected. Poetry is much like dance or music in that way.

Good is global 

I also learned, during those years, that the work stands up because it is good – not because it is ticking some diversity box. Many of us, outside the dominant white culture in Aotearoa, are prone to believing this about ourselves and our work. I've been told that my work is staged or published because it's filling the ‘brown quota’ – by not-so-well-meaning pakeha colleagues – more than once.

If the work is good, it's good in NZ and NYC and Russia. It also reminds me that we – as both Pasifika and New Zealand artists – can hold our own on any international stage. We are so used to seeing ourselves as small, isolated from the big centres and unworthy of the big stages. We don't just tall-poppy the tall poppies, we tall-poppy ourselves. We (like many Kiwis in many areas of life) are plagued by this lack of belief in ourselves. We need to stop this scything, take a deep breath and let ourselves be bright red flowers.

poetry is a vehicle; a vehicle for six magnificent Pasifika actresses to sink their cleverly sharpened teeth into; their hilarious, wild, broken hearts and soaring souls into.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is poetry. And this poetry is a vehicle; a vehicle for six magnificent Pasifika actresses to sink their cleverly sharpened teeth into; their hilarious, wild, broken hearts and soaring souls into. Pasifika actresses are too often on the sidelines; too often playing the shallow or peripheral role of mother, girlfriend, aunty, cleaner. In Wild Dogs Under My Skirt Pasifika women are entirely in the centre, they have the opportunity to stretch themselves beyond their earthly limits. This is another part of my tautua – to my sister creatives.

The show is a vehicle for an astounding director, Anapela Polata’ivao, who crafts something extraordinary, earthed and supernatural. When she speaks of the character she plays, Teine Sa (the human incarnation of Tele Sa, the legendary Samoan aitu/ spirit), she speaks of Her with a kind of wonder. I consider Anapela a taulasea, a channeler of aitu/ spirits. Anapela is a director and actor who obeys what the spirit is saying, follows Her and leads the other actresses to do the same. Every time I watch the show, Teine Sa’s arrival and what she unleashes in the women is a deep-in-the-manava/ gut revelation; a beyond-the-brain revolution.

A heart that swells

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is still my baby. My baby has grown into awesome adulthood under the guidance of an extraordinary artistic (and actual) aiga/ extended family: Victor Rodger, who produces from the heart; Anapela Polata’ivao who directs as priestess and consummate artist; a superb all-Pasifikan cast and crew. The gratitude and pride I feel is enormous.

You can see Tusiata Avia in the flesh, performing as the feature poet at the SUP Open Mic, Youthline Manukau, Wednesday, February 19 at 7PM

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

17 Feb 2020

The Big Idea Editor

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