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Review: O le Pepelo, le gaoi ma le pala’ai - a powerful and thought provoking play

Mary Afemata

If Shakespeare was Samoan, this would fit the bill - with the drama, the backstabbing, the betrayal and the pursuit of power.

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The bilingual play is refreshing on many levels; from the style, the dialogue and the delivery. It uses English and gagana Samoa, which is a rare but welcome treat that enhanced my experience.

Co-written by Ui Natano Keni and Sarita Keo Kossaak So, the story revolves around the Sa Tauilevā family.

Set in Samoa, Pili Sa Tauilevā (Semu Filipo) is a proud ali’i (chief) of the aiga (family). His wife Fa’asoa Sa Tauilevā (Aruna Po-Ching) is his loyal companion.

Their son Matagi (Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson) and daughter Vāiloloto (Ana Corbett), who returns from New Zealand, hope to be named as their father’s successor after Pili falls ill.

From the outset, service is a strong theme.

The family lives on a chicken farm and the hierarchy in the home and power dynamics are clear between the characters and the three different levels of the staging.

We witness the decline of a leader, his obstinacy to retain his position and power, and how his children aspire to fill his shoes with his conditions.

The vā is the sacred space between people and relationships and is an important Samoan concept.

The vā between brother and sister feels trampled on when Matagi and Vāiloloto are pitted against each other continuously.

‘While it’s fiction, it felt like fragments of my life were before my eyes as a Samoan’

The one time they agree on a decision is in circumstances that highlight their father’s greed and obsession with power.

The banter between Vaofefe (Jesme Fa’auuga) and Tama’i (Villa Junior Lemanu) at the beginning of the play also sets the tone.

There’s Samoan humour mixed with slapstick humour that might be hit or miss. Some people laughed at: “Is it taboo or taepu (fart)?”

However, you don’t have to be Samoan to understand the jokes, as everyone was laughing and following along with the drama.

“The pathway to leadership is through service” is woven throughout the narrative.

An important question is raised about how we can be sure our service is not in vain.

Matagi answers: “If our service is true, how can it ever be in vain?”

As a Kiwi-Samoan, the experience of my mother tongue being a huge part of the dialogue was warming and interesting.

The struggle balancing traditional fa’asamoa within and outside of Samoa and how we show tautua resonated with me.

It’s easy to immerse in the world of the Sa Tauilevā family when the actors are brilliant and the story compels you to think critically.

From the directing and costumes to the lighting and the music, all executed in a way that kept me on the edge of my seat, sitting tight amidst the emotional roller coaster.

I had moments of confrontation because while it’s fiction, it felt like fragments of my life were before my eyes as a Samoan.

Matagi calling out his sister when he says: “It’s one thing to go against family, but to insult the sacred names of this realm by calling them liars, thieves and cowards on social media is another,” was memorable and funny.

A captivating and sometimes confronting story

The play makes you ponder - although service is a part of our fabric as Samoans, I question the integrity of the service given each character’s ulterior motives and how we fit in the scheme of fa’asamoa in our lives.

The collaboration between Auckland Theatre Company and I Ken So Productions is exciting, as it showcases more of our indigenous storytelling on a platform like the ASB Waterfront Theatre, reaching a wider audience.

The play isn’t just for Samoans.

There’s something for everyone, as the themes are universal.

The audience is enthralled by the conflict of preserving the tradition of fa’asamoa in today’s western world through the authority of the house of Sa Tauilevā family.

Or in simple terms, an ill father must name his heir but is too stubborn to relinquish his title.

There is a scene where Pili confronts the audience in a powerful and captivating outburst.

He caught my attention when he boldly said: “They will keep on handing out matai names like the participation awards to individuals who do not understand the full weight and responsibility of the world.”

Pili goes straight for the jugular with confronting cultural issues.

Another example is when he calls out those “Sa-Mow-Ans” who stink of democracy.

“It is not a democracy here. Does their democracy truly walk hand in hand with our traditions?”

For Samoans watching the play, it will be interesting to see what resonates with them and what sparks courageous conversations; just like I had after being enriched in the culture for 2 hours and 30 minutes.

O le Pepelo, le Gaoi, ma le Pala’ai - The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward - is a powerful and thought-provoking Samoan play that everyone needs to see.

The play is showing at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until Saturday, March 23. For ticket information, visit: Auckland Theatre Company

Hero Image: 'O le Pepelo, le Gaoi, ma le Pala’ai' is showing at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until March 23. The Sa Tauilevā family surrounds their father Pili, the matai of their family who is grievously ill. Photo / Anna Benhak

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