The Power of Mangy Dogs
Tusiata Avia's barnstorming poetry comes to life at Q Theatre this month in Silo Theatre's Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, directed by the inimitable Anapela Polata'ivao. Lana Lopesi digs into the play and cracks open its radical, dramatic portrayal of the unseen and unheard lives of tama’ita’i Samoa.
I want my legs as sharp as dogs’ teeth –
wild Samoan dogs,
the mangy kind that bite strangers.
The potent forces of Tagaloa gave formation to the void, through lands and oceans, skies and underworlds. Through the womb of a mortal woman, Tagaloa transferred his divine mana into the human race. Sending his daughter Tuli down in the form of a bird, who turned maggots that had appeared from a rotting vine into living men and women.
Sinataeolelagi, another daughter of Tagaloa, bore the sun as her child, named La, to her mortal husband Tafa’i. Every day La returned east to his mother’s home in the heavens before moving west again in the evening to rest.
When the concentration of mana is so significant, aitu, supernatural beings born as blood clots, originate. Saveasi'uleo was an aitu who ruled Pulotu, the spirit underworld. He had the upper body of a man and the lower body of an eel. His wife was Tilafaiga, another aitu. She and her twin sister Taema had swum from Samoa to Fiji and returned with the instruments for tattooing, a practice they introduced to Samoa. The child of Tilafaiga and Saveasi'uleo was born as a blood clot and buried, later emerging as an adult woman. Her name was Nafanua.
At a time of war on the island of Savaiʻi, Nafanua led the people of the west against the people of the east and defeated them. Following her victory she apportioned political authority over the various districts of Samoa among the chiefs who came to pay homage to her. On the island of Upolu, rivalries were also breaking out and the support of Nafanua was sought once more. Nafanua won again, and in so doing conquered all of Samoa.
The ancient archetype of the Samoan woman, as portrayed by Tuli, Sinataeolelagi, Tilafaiga and Nafanua, is one of immense strength and mana yet also grace, sensitivity and vulnerability. She is a complex woman with many sides and layers, but her defining quality is one of power: not only the power to give birth to mankind but also a procreative power; the power to form ancient customs as well as the features of the universe.
This power of the Samoan woman, in its unwieldy, complex and contemporary form, takes centre stage in Tusiata Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Avia first released Wild Dogs into the world at the Dunedin Fringe Festival in 2002 as a one-woman show, two years before it was published as a collection of poetry in 2004. After that premiere, Avia toured her show across Aotearoa and on to Brisbane, Honolulu, Hamburg, Moscow, Vienna and then Africa, ultimately touring the show for eight years.
Four years ago, Victor Rodger, Avia’s cousin and playwright, founded FCC (Flow, Create, Connect), a space where Pasifika theatre-makers could, through a series of readings, work with complex texts by Pasifika playwrights and other playwrights of colour, most of which were yet to be produced locally. For one of those readings, Rodger took Avia’s Wild Dogs and asked his friend Anapela Polata'ivao to direct and present it as a six-woman play – the form it remains in today.
The ancient archetype of the Samoan woman is one of immense strength and mana yet also grace, sensitivity and vulnerability.
The six characters in Wild Dogs – Mary Jane, Tusiata, Teine Sa, Manila, Aunty Fale, Aunty Aovai – are played by six women, who draw out contrasting, overlapping and contradictory ways of being Samoan. Each character up to her elbows in the grease of sex, love and life. You have the corned-beef loving woman; the woman crying over her size 11 feet; the Christian Aunty enforcer casting judgment on those who cannot live by her strict, self-shaming rules; the woman who, so repulsed by the normalised violence against women in her community, searches for love outside of her culture; and the aitu, arguably the only woman in the village allowed to flaunt her sexuality.
The play delves deep into Avia's experiences of being a Samoan woman and the experiences of the Samoan women all around her. These experiences live in the gaps of literature, in the gossip amongst our aunties and in the bodies of our women.
In that sense Avia is a translator, translating her own truth but also the unseen and unheard lives of tama’ita’i Samoa, Samoan women. And she is not afraid to go there: comprehensive and uncompromising, she tackles Samoa’s over-reliance on and over-valuing of heavily processed foods; the New Zealand atrocities committed in Samoa and Helen Clarke’s 2002 apology; intimate-partner violence and violence toward children; conservative attitudes toward sex and the simultaneous over-sexualisation of women; the blessings of large Samoan feet and washing your undies in the shower.
For Polata'ivao, the “fireball” came in the writing itself. “It is its own living breathing thing,” she says, “and I’m just obeying what it needs me to do.”
The writing is electric, powerful and vulnerable, giving rise to a gulp in your throat until it falls into the depths of your stomach. The conversations that Wild Dogs opens, like the hack of the machete to the tin of corned beef, still live and breathe years on from the play’s debut. Many Pasifika women know these stories and these lives intimately; Wild Dogs Under My Skirt makes these stories normal by bringing them out from being unspoken and onto the main stage. The play is full of references specific to Samoan experience, references that, Avia says, “nobody else but we get,” made through language and subject matter “which makes [them] normal.”
Perhaps that’s where the magic really lies: where the experiences of the writer, the director and the cast come together as lived and embodied, where the fruits of their collaboration play out before our eyes. Director Anapela Polata’ivao explains this: as Pasifika women, the actresses also relate to the characters and so don’t see themselves as learning parts. Rather, they’re playing parts they already know well. Reflecting on the journey her writing has made, Avia comments, “You would think letting go of it would be difficult. But it hasn’t been, because it has gone on to be a magnificent thing.” For Polata'ivao, though, the “fireball” came in the writing itself. “It is its own living breathing thing,” she says, “and I’m just obeying what it needs me to do.” Listening to her and Avia talk – the ways they acknowledge each other, Rodger, their cast and their crew – the spirit of co-production and collaboration comes into focus. The writing, directing and staging all fold into each other.
Silo Theatre Artistic Director Sophie Roberts says that she’s aiming to reflect those values – “Intimacy and a generosity of spirit in their relationship with the audience” – in this year’s programming. She explains that Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is heart-led storytelling; it’s “empowering, challenging and enriching, and as a programmer that’s an experience I want people to have when they come to the theatre.”
Through normalising the experiences of Samoan womanhood, Roberts also recognises that “there were ways in which I identified personally with the work and ways in which it challenged me to sit in an experience and perspective that is very different to my own.”
“When I saw the show in Wellington last year,” Roberts continues, “I was really struck by the power of Tusiata’s words, connected performances from the cast and emotionally sensitive direction from Anapela.”
Wild Dogs has no holds barred; it hits multiple registers, wrenching guts, making eyes water. It is incredibly empowering, seeing six Pasifika women, sensual and unapologetic, on a main stage in Tāmaki Makaurau. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt has personal and profound impact on the page, in the rehearsal room and on the stage. Brought out from the realm of the unspoken, issues of sex, love, family and violence become inescapable, like the impending rush of pain under the tool of the tufuga ta tatau. However, the wild dogs under these skirts are not only in the form of the malu, but in the unlimited power that exists across the spectrum of womanhood.
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt runs from March 5 to March 11 at Q Theatre. Tickets available here.
This piece is presented as part of a partnership with Silo Theatre and appears in the show programme. Silo cover the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control.
Header image: Stacey Leilua in the New Zealand Festival season of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (Hannah Playhouse, 2018). Image credit: Matt Grace.