Disclaimer: I don’t know how to spell the names of some of the central characters in Niu Sila. They’re not in the programme, and my experience of Pacific Island culture simply doesn’t extend far enough to have a working knowledge of name spellings (even if, as is explained about one of the main character’s names, it’s as common as “John” in English). So I’m going to muddle my way through, but if I’m wrong and you know it, write a letter to Salient correcting me. Educate me, please.
I don’t tell you all this just to be humble or self-effacing. I’m getting in on the action. Niu Sila is a story of education, a story of cultures both clashing and melding. At an extremely pertinent point in our political history – and ain’t coincidence a funny thing, folks? – Niu Sila could almost be held up as the “truth” about New Zealand race relations. Here, two cultures can appreciate each other, inform each other, but never really understand each other – they are always two things separate and apart.
Based on comedian Dave Armstrong’s experiences growing up in Newtown in the 1960s and ‘70s, back before the area was that Aro Valley-esque mix of newly upmarket real estate and student slums and was still a vibrant Wellington melting pot, Niu Sila is the story of Ioane Tafioka (sp.) and Peter Burton, two boys growing up in next-door houses. It’s the story of how two kids having incredibly similar experiences – going to the same schools, playing the same games with the same people in the same parks – can be pushed by their cultural heritages in completely different directions.
Similarity and difference are at the core of this story, and are highlighted from the play’s opening moments by the physicality of the two actors who make up the entirety of the cast. Dave Fane, of The Naked Samoans, Skitz and The Semisis, is a great big Samoan guy. Damon Andrews, a well-known theatre actor and director, is a tiny little white guy. These two men, whose physical disparity generates the first of the play’s many laughs, play every role in the 80-minute long script. Essentially Niu Sila is a series of sketches joined loosely into a narrative by virtue of the grown-up Peter’s narration. Linked by these chatty asides to the audience, each scene from the boys’ youth moves fluidly into the next, with Fane and Andrews equally convincing from moment to moment, whether their character be young or old, white or brown, male or female (as Mrs Tafioka and Mrs Burton respectively, each man makes a frighteningly good woman). The stage is bare save two classroom-style chairs, and the play borders on mime as the
characters play cricket, make cups of tea, strum guitars and drive cars without the aid of props. This adds to Niu Sila’s fresh, spontaneous and intimate feel.
Niu Sila is hysterically funny, but at its heart is an almost depressing drama. Real sadness and pity underscore scenes like that in which Ioane, approached by a police car while walking down the road, has a prepared speech at the ready – “I have not been drinking or thieving, I am not a known member of a gang…”. Playwright Dave Armstrong has referred to this play as “a requiem for a time in NZ that no longer exists”, and in many ways this is true. For someone who grew up in a fairly segregated, post-PC New Zealand, Niu Sila offers a glimpse of the source of the stereotypes by which we no longer abide. I cringed as Peter described Mr Tafioka as a man who “wore jandals and a lava-lava and carried an entire couch under one arm”, and when Ioane suggested that the most offensive thing an Islander could ever do was “a toss up between missing church and fucking your sister”, I really wasn’t sure that I was allowed to laugh. And that illustrates what makes Niu Sila not only an excellent, but an important play – in the play’s final moments, crying real tears, I really did find myself questioning my beliefs and lamenting the passing of a New Zealand that I never knew.