In early 90s Christchurch, a remarkable group of Pasifika performers take their first steps towards success.
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In the unlikely setting of Christchurch in 1993, something remarkable is underway. In a small theatre at the Arts Centre, a young Samoan man steps out onto a stage and addresses the audience.
“For too long now, my people, we have been oppressed. We were once welcomed into this country with open arms because the government at the time needed cheap labour. Now it seems we are no longer welcome.”
The character’s name is Samoa, played by then-novice actor Oscar Kightley. The play, called Fresh Off the Boat, is the debut show by a new theatre company called Pacific Underground, a group that will change both theatre in New Zealand and the way pacific stories are told.
For all his bold words, Samoa – real name, Englebert – isn’t the hero he believes himself to be. The would-be revolutionary leader still lives with his mum and is terrified of leaving home to look after himself.
In that sense, Englebert and Oscar had a fair bit in common back in 1993. Oscar may have felt like a newbie acting on stage in just his second professional performance – and the first play he’s written – but the home truth was something different. He had been performing all his life, mostly in shows at his church.
“And they’re very traumatic experiences, to be honest.”
“No director is as scary as your own rellies in the front row of church at White Sunday, looking at you and daring you to get it right and not muck up.”
Oscar Kightley, one of the Pacific Underground founders, was born in Samoa in 1969 and moved to Auckland as a child. He trained as a journalist at the now-defunct Auckland Star but his move towards theatre began in 1991 when he moved to Christchurch for TV work. To his surprise, Oscar discovered a community of Pasifika and palagi actors, writers, dancers and musicians in the southern city. They were all young, talented and ready. And their timing is just right.
“Our pacific community was starting to grow. In fact it grew by 40% in the 1990s.”
“We were all born around the same time, all young and hungry and beginning to explore the performing arts as a career.”
Oscar wasn’t a big fan of the theatre he saw around him then, describing it as mostly stemming from European traditions. He and his friends found their models elsewhere, in the work of Māori playwrights. They started to believe that theatre might be a vehicle for them.
“So I said why don’t we form a theatre company and write our own plays?
“It can’t be that hard.”
“It was a lot harder than I thought it was! But that’s how Pacific Underground began, with a group of friends who had a love of performing and who came from communities with stories that needed telling.”
Oscar Kightley, Simon Small, Erolia Ifopo, Michael Hodgson and the Muagutitui’a sisters, Mishelle and Tanya, formed Pacific Underground. They agreed to talk about touchy subjects: immigration, negotiating two cultures, family expectations, success and failure. All of which found their way into their debut show. Written by Simon and Oscar and directed by veteran Samoan/New Zealand actor Nathaniel Lees, Fresh off the Boat opened on 17 November 1993. The Pacific Underground style arrived fully formed.
“From our church roots it’s pretty much getting on a blank stage and just performing; just occupying that space, telling a story and then getting off again and not making it too boring.
“But it was also about putting funny stuff in.”
“We found that when delivering stories, getting people to laugh was a really effective way of doing that. They’d have a good time and then they’d go away after and think; oh, that wasn’t that funny.”
Fresh Off The Boat told the story of Samoan man Charles who moves to New Zealand to live with his sister. Charles struggles to both keep a job and to adjust to the way his sibling chooses to live. A struggle that found a new poignancy when the company toured the play to Samoa in 1994.
“And over here it was very much a riotous comedy. But when we got to Samoa the truth and pain came out a lot clearer. They were saying ‘what’s so funny?’
“This is about one of us going to New Zealand and failing.”
But Pacific Underground wasn’t failing and over the next few years, they forged a winning combination of theatre, education and music, telling their stories their way. In 1995 the play Tatau – Rites of Passage opened at the Herald Theatre in Auckland. A multi-generational devised work about migration and finding your place in the world, the show began with an actor being tattooed live onstage by a master Tofuga – something never seen on a stage before.
"Real blood was being spilled. All you could hear was the tapping and the odd murmur from (the actor). That was like the first 10 minutes of the play, there was nothing else.
“The audience was transfixed.”
For the 1996 New Zealand Festival in Wellington, Oscar co-authored the play A Frigate Bird Sings about a fa’afafine character called Vili. Two years later, Oscar was awarded the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award for his play, Dawn Raids, which has just been published. Later that year, Oscar moved on from Pacific Underground and with actors Shimpal Lelisi, Mario Gaowa and Dave Fane, all former members of the Underground, he formed comedy troupe the Naked Samoans. Animated TV series bro’Town followed and then two movies called Sione’s Wedding.
In 2006 Oscar Kightley was named a Laureate by the Arts Foundation and three years later became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2016 he was honoured as a Senior Pacific Artist at the Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Awards.
Pacific Underground powered on, staging new plays, producing arts festivals and touring the country with theatre in education shows. The musical side that had been there from the start came to the fore and over the years; artists like Scribe, Ladi6 and Dallas Tamaira have passed through their ranks. In 2016, Pacific Underground were honoured with a lifetime achievement at the Pacific Music Awards.
Oscar and the Naked Samoans have reformed for a new show at the 2018 Auckland Arts Festival. The Naked Samoans Do Magic comes a full 20 years after their debut and 25 years after that first Pacific Underground performance.
So what began in 1993 with a bunch of friends who wanted to tell their own stories became that and much more. And while none of it was an accident, Oscar insists it wasn’t really by design, either.
“We didn’t set out to be a famous theatre group or be part of a movement that saw storytelling evolve in New Zealand. We just knew we were terrible mechanic or accountants…
“But we knew we just loved getting stage and performing.”
This story was produced using archival audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision, Tagata Pasifika and FireHorse Films and for research, drew on the book Floating Islanders - Pasifika Theatre in Aotearoa by Lisa Warrington and David O'Donnell. Fa’a’fetai tele lava.