Putting Pasifika characters front and centre

Heretic is a play by a white Australian. It’s about a white American anthropologist and a white Australian anthropologist who clash over their respective research on Samoan people.

Heretic is the single most influential play I saw as a burgeoning writer. While I could certainly appreciate the intellectual argument going on in the foreground, my eye and my heart were drawn to the two or three Samoan characters running round in the background; the ones who weren’t given anything approaching a character arc, let alone anything approaching three dimensions or a character. What was their story, I wondered?

It seems like I’ve been answering that question, metaphorically at least, for the last 20 years.

Writing for me is a political act. It’s an act of representation. Initially it was an act of representing my very particular point of view: that of someone who was of mixed Samoan and palagi descent who didn’t know their way around the Samoan world and learned the hard way. But it has developed into a broader desire to put Pasifika characters and actors front and centre, a desire to resist the dominant narrative.

My Name Is Gary Cooper (2007)

I spent a large chunk of the 70s and 80s devouring movie magazines like Rona Barrett’s Gossip and Photoplay, reading about stars like Raquel Welch and Erik Estrada. So it seemed somewhat inevitable that one day I would create a play that drew on my almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Hollywood trivia. That play was My Name Is Gary Cooper.

If you say the name Gary Cooper to anyone under 40, these days you’re likely to get a “Gary who?” look. Back in the day Gary Cooper was a big star, arguably best known for his Oscar-winning turn as the beleaguered sheriff Will Kane in High Noon. But in Samoa people still know his name because he flew there in the early 50s to film the movie Return to Paradise. They have what is known as ‘Return to Paradise beach’ in Lefaga and the Gary Cooper suite at Aggie Grey’s Hotel.

The seed for My Name Is Gary Cooper was planted at a barbecue in Auckland in the early 2000s when one of my mates said he’d seen a documentary about the making of Return to Paradise in 1952. Apparently the documentary featured several Samoan men, named for the star, saying in their thick Samoan accents: “Hello, my name is Gary Cooper.” Shortly after that barbecue there happened to be a screening of Return to Paradise at the Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, the last of the old-school movie theatres left in Auckland.

Gary Cooper in 'Return to Paradise'. Photo: Getty Images

Return to Paradise is similar to a lot of those old Hollywood movies from the 50s set in the South Pacific: a white protagonist enters the brown world and stirs things up. What if, I wondered after watching the film, a brown character entered the white world for a change and stirred things up? What would that look like? The answer was My Name Is Gary Cooper, which begins at that screening of Return to Paradise at the Hollywood Cinema, and then ping-pongs between 1973 Los Angeles and 1952 Samoa.

In many ways it’s the flip side of my 1995/98 play Sons: in Sons the afakasi protagonist wants to become part of his father’s family; in Gary Cooper the afakasi protagonist wants to destroy his father’s family.

Finally I managed to marry all that movie star trivia with my desire to see Pacific characters at the heart of the action.

Black Faggot (2013)

Destiny Church’s ‘Enough is Enough’ march against the Civil Union Bill in 2004 featured fathers marching with their sons. Watching the march I knew in my heart that at the very least one of those kids would be gay and most likely feeling wretched about his sexuality. So in 2006 I wrote what would become the five or six cornerstone monologues of Black Faggot, and then stalled. But in 2012, when there was a lot of negative chatter within the Pacific community about the impending Marriage Equality Bill, I was newly inspired to finally finish the play.

With Black Faggot I wanted to present a broad spectrum of gay Samoan men, since they had often been presented as nothing more than objects of mirth within Samoan theatre. I went for it. Cum on the wallpaper. Pretending to know how to eat pussy. Graphic descriptions of sex with a Tongan stranger. I thought I’d pushed it. As it stands, the play is my most successful work to date and especially embraced by straight, white middle-class audiences around the world.

Go figure.

Club Paradiso (2015)

Robbie Magasiva is perhaps New Zealand’s most successful Samoan actor. We’ve now worked on five plays together since playing brothers in Sons. I’ve known Robbie so long I’ve forgotten that people who only know him from watching him in film or on TV or in a play still get starstruck when they meet him on the street. I’ll watch him deal with fawning fans and be like, “Oh my gosh, he’s just an actor. He just says my words.” But the thing is, Robbie always does the words justice, which is why I’ve written four roles with him specifically in mind.

In 2015 I asked him what kind of role he would like to play that he hadn’t yet. He thought about it and then said, “I’ve never played evil.” From that provocation came Club Paradiso.

' Robbie always does the words justice.' Photo: Getty Images

I wrote the play over two days in Los Angeles while I played Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy on loop in my office.

The play is pitch black.

It’s the first time that I had to keep asking myself: can I actually bring myself to type out the thought I just had in my head? And I’m glad I did.

The play featured an all-Polynesian cast of seven. Not everybody liked it: some thought it was predictable. Others took issue with the way it portrayed brown bodies on stage.

Me? I think it’s possibly the best thing I’ve written. It gave the entire cast a chance to really strut their stuff, to reach. In terms of the spectrum of what exists for Pacific casts, I stand behind it and am proud of it. And Robbie was outstanding. Almost 20 years ago, in 1998, he was one of those Samoans running round in the background of that influential production of Heretic.

This is an abridged extract from Victor Rodger’s essay ‘Provocations’ in The Fuse Box: Essays on Writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price, which is published by Victoria University Press on Friday, August 11. In the full version of the essay, Rodger also writes about his plays Cunning Stunts, Sons, Ranterstantrum, At the Wake and Girl on a Corner.

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