Review: Girl on a Corner
Black Faggot was the breakout hit of the last Auckland Fringe, winning a slew of awards and going on to tour fringe and arts festival around the world. Victor Rodger's play cast a light on how sexuality is treated in Samoan culture, with Rodger's trademark black comedy and appreciation of the dark ironies within all of us. Girl on a Corner, in almost exactly the same timeslot, works in a similar vein; it casts a light on a person we might have forgotten, and seeks to explore the parts of her life that we wouldn’t have thought about.
The girl in question is Shalimar, born Ken Atison Seiuli, winner of Island Queen 1993, aspiring fashion designer but most famously known as the prostitute that Eddie Murphy picked up one fateful night. The play follows her life from her childhood in Samoa through to her untimely death in LA, where she fell from the roof of her apartment block. In a stylistic flourish, Shalimar narrates her life to us, and we are shown the factual version of the story, or as close as we can get to it in a fictional construct, and what Shalimar wishes had happened.
It’s a fascinating way to tell the story, but it begins to grow stale around the halfway point. Shalimar is telling us her story in retrospect, and the jumps between the real stories and the imagined stories - and even the chronological jumps - never allow her to develop as a character. As a result, we get the outline of a person, and the important events in her life, rather than a true understanding of what drives her; it feels like a lively obituary rather than an investigation or examination into her character. Like of all Rodger's work, it is always engaging. Rodger writes quick dialogue that you can’t ignore when it’s being thrown back and forth onstage, but it stops short of hitting at the heart of Shalimar’s dilemma. The heartbreaking gap between Shalimar’s reality and Shalimar’s fantasy isn’t explored in depth; we're never allowed to feel the crushing disappointment that comes after her move to LA, where she aspired to be a fashion designer but instead wound up as the titular girl on a corner. Shalimar's disappointment is instead presented to us as black, if slightly bruised, humour and while this makes her an appealing and winning character, it doesn't involve us in her dilemma. She doesn't react to her tragedies as a human would, she reacts to them as a construct would, and as a result the play ends up being a disappointingly surface-level examination of a life, ticking off events like boxes on a report card and giving us a grade at the end.
Amanaki Prescott is an incredibly striking figure as Shalimar, and she’s compelling from the moment she walks onstage. Her physicality is on point, from the musical interludes to the defeated strut she assumes for the majority of the play. She’s a type of performer we don’t see enough in mainstream theatre, she's possessed of an uncommon intensity and facial agility, and it’s a pleasure to spend the hour in her presence. Her vocal work is less strong – her delivery sits a high register throughout, with very little tonal variation to give Rodger’s punchlines the extra spark they need to land, and beyond that she is occasionally hard to hear. These vocal difficulties are present across the cast, with wandering accents and shaky set-ups disrupting the flow of the play.
The cast is strong as an ensemble, and their group work is especially pleasing to watch. Joanna Toloa and Aleni Tufuga are incredibly watchable as Shalimar’s parents, and some scenes towards the end are especially affecting. Taufa Fisiinaua has a tremendously unenviable job of playing Eddie Murphy, a man with iconic energy and voice, and while he never really nails the voice or physicality of the man, the energy is spot-on and he gives us some of the darkest laughs in the play.
Anapela Polataivao and Vela Manusaute bring power to the stripped back style of the play; there’s almost no set and the lighting, designed by Jennifer Lal, is minimal and effective, but the gap between reality and fantasy is hard to explore and tackle with little visual or aural support to work with. So much ends up being told to us rather than shown to us, and the most troubling parts of Shalimar’s life, especially her time in LA, is intimated rather than evoked.
This is a worthwhile story, and Rodger’s play is rightfully quick to criticize the many groups that were against Shalimar throughout her life, from the media to the people around her when she grew up to Eddie Murphy himself, but the structure pushes the audience away from Shalimar instead of inviting us to investigate deeper. This is a story that has potential: there aren’t enough writers discussing Samoan culture, especially when displaced to another country, and to be seeing a story about that is a treat and a necessity. But Girl on a Corner skates around the tragedy of her life - that the world was never going to give her what she wanted from the start - and in doing so loses a lot of potential weight.
Tickets available through iTicket
See also: James Wenley for Metro Magazine