Loose Canons: James Nokise

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Loose Canons is a series where we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.

James Nokise is an award-winning stand-up comedian whose shows include So-So Gangsta, Big Words and We Need To Talk About The Golliwogs. He also wears a dizzying array of other hats: puppeteer (for Fringe hit Puppet Fiction), playwright (penning multiple entries in the popular political satire series PSA), actor (in the 2009 New Zealand Fringe Festival production The Minister's Son), performance poet and commentator on television and radio.

Nokise's next show, Rukahu, follows senior Pacific Island performer Jon Bon Fasi, who's gotten a $75k grant out of Creative New Zealand for his new project RUKAHU: In Search of the Pacific and clearly spared all expense for opening night. But where did the cash go, and how can Fasi justify this one? Rukahu was originally performed in the 2015 New Zealand Fringe Festival and was nominated for four awards at the New Zealand Fringe Awards that year, winning two awards including Best Theatre Solo.

The Soulquarians

You do know them. How's this lineup: Questlove, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Common, J Dilla, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Q-Tip, Raphael Sadiq, Bilal, James Poyser (from The Roots), Pino Palladino (a genius Welsh bassist), and Roy Hargrove (the most badass trumpet player on the planet). In the late 90's, they collaborated on albums like The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Badu's Mama Gun, D'Angelo's Voodoo (the neo soul masterpiece) and Common's Like Water For Chocolate.

I actually discovered them through a one-off collaboration with Speech from Arrested Development, called ‘Like Marvin Gaye Said’. Common's ‘The Light’ was the first time I'd heard a rapper call out gangsta culture, and 6th Sense lead me to Gil Scott-Heron. Shit, D'angelo basically explained all of Prince's catalogue to me with ‘Untitled (How Does it Feel?)’. I'm pretty sure I could just do a whole essay on how neo soul empowered geeky bros in the late 90s.

I've often got their music on in the background when I'm figuring out gear or writing a scene. I'm listening to Common's latest, Black America Again, while I write this. Sometimes music is good for white noise, sometimes it helps you build a theme. Because I grew up in quite an emotionally repressed community, music can help unlock some of the doors that want to stay shut in my mind. And they continue to remind me: Question. Always Question.

A lot of people don't appreciate that as the American pop culture empire grew, the empowerment of oppressed Americans, and their journey, became a pathway for other oppressed cultures. Samoans in New Zealand could see more in common between Otara and Harlem than, say, Queenstown. At this point I remind you of the 1972-81 Dawn Raids and the tiny, 35-year gap between then and now. There isn't a secret brotherhood of indigenous peoples that leads to Maori travelling to Standing Rock. It's a worldwide shared experience of the colonised. The language may be different, the terrain different, but we all know the tune. Before it was a jingle, ‘In The Neighbourhood’ was a social anthem for Maori and PI living in the cities. ‘How Bizzare’ was a dream of the OMC.

And as social media's grown, I've followed artists like Talib and Mos on Twitter and I've grown in respect for the way they receive daily (like hundreds-daily) abuse and dead-bat it or knock it for six.

I draw a lot of strength from the artists I meet in different countries, from their struggles and journeys. Funnily enough, one of the things we'll do is drink a coffee and shoot the breeze over music. Quite often it's Black American #notallmusic #chillthefuckout. Maybe it's a generation thing. For some people it's Nina, Maya, and Marvin; for me, it's the Soulquarians.

Peter Brook

There Are No Secrets is one of the first books on theatre I ever read and it struck a chord. I liked the idea of minimalist theatre that can be accessible to a community while spreading to global issues. I liked the way in which he discusses working with communities and spaces to build a story of them for us.

I think it helped that my first theatre teacher was a big fan. We used to talk about him while listening to Kid A, and this is waaay before hipsters was a thing (so like even more hipster). I suspect he took too much acid at an Edinburgh Festival, saw one of Brook's shows and was hooked.

I was lucky enough to see one a few years ago, and to see the talk earlier in the day. It was based in Africa and it was this ethereal take on colonisation and the cultural oppression. Or at least that's how I saw it. Some of my friends saw it differently, some thought it was nonsense, and I kind of like that too.

I think I've always felt a bit on the outside about theatre, and that's probably more to do with me seeing myself as a comedian experimenting with theatre rather than the industry’s view of me. Comedians have a tendency to keep the doors shut without realising it. I hated reading Brecht, and Stanislavsky was alright, but Brook I felt like I got. He collaborated with a cartoonish list of characters, like a theatrical Magnificent Seven. It's still the only time I’ve gone "Man, I want to join that theatre company."

I've been challenged recently to try and make work for larger casts, but I'm still figuring out making smaller, community-based shows. And the other nice thing about Brook is that he shows you can take your time developing – just don't shut people out.

Josie Long

I met Josie years ago, when she first came to NZ, but I didn't get a chance to see her do a solo show until a few years ago due to clashes. It was called Be Honourable! and it's still one of the finest hours I've ever watched. It started off with a love of food and ended with a passionate call to political action. It's when I decided I should probably think about getting involved in politics.

I'm writing this on the night that Donald Trump has become President of the United States. It might be hard for some of you to understand that, in this moment, I'm scared to travel through America again.

I get stopped and searched and yes, it is because of my looks. I'm of the Pacific.

Global warming is real and Trump does not believe in it. I now believe I will see Tokelau vanish in my lifetime. Nauru will go.

I have already experienced post-Brexit racism. Trump's election will embolden those who believe greatness lies in being greater than others.

Maybe the key element Josie's taught me is this: You have to love your subject. You just to have to. Live audiences can tell when you're phoning it in. If you love what you’re talking about, that love comes through, even when you're so tired it feels like you're phoning it in.

There's also this really strange feeling when you realise how much better your mate is than you when it comes to what you both do. It's a little mix of jealousy, envy, joy, and pride. I want to be as good as her. I also love watching and learning from her.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Cliches be damned, when you talk to me about The Rock, understand you're Woody Harrelson from White Men Can't Jump, I'm Wesley Snipes, and you might listen to Jimi Hendrix, but you can't hear Jimi Hendrix. I'm a mixed-race Samoan kid from urban New Zealand. In the 90s, there statistically shouldn’t have been an international superstar I could look at and think, "He could be family." Not just coz of bloodlines, but physically. When I'm clean shaven he actually looks like an older cousin.

That's what the Rock means to me and mine. What I wrote above about Black Americans and Urbanesians? That x100 for The Rock.

I smelled what he was cooking and it was Pisupo and Taro in coconut cream. The swagger, the charm, the eyebrow – he wasn't a token, a side-kick, a mysterious curiosity. This brother was a main event, the hero. No, really: in 2000, WWE was running a storyline where their bosses were the bad guys, and the main hero, the people's champion, was… a Samoan with family in Avondale? I'm a Samoan with family in Avondale! And Hulk Hogan is calling this guy his successor?!! (NB: heroic wrestler Hogan, not real-life racist Hogan). 

We all wanted to be him. Me, Ma'a Nonu, Scribe - all Samoans. Steven Adams probably wants to be him. And now he's the biggest movie star in the world?! A Samoan with family in Avondale?!

Maybe, with the speed things move at, it's easy to forget that 16 years ago, the pathway to that kind of dream wasn't there. We were All Blacks, not movie stars. We were quiet and humble in public, not strutting like we owned the place. We didn't call ourselves Electrifying – that was John Travolta's word in Grease. But here's Dwayne Johnson, calling himself The Rock, and he electrifies. No Samoan may be as beloved as him. I guarantee there are people in the States who know about Samoa only because of him. And that's important. When the seas are swallowing the Pacific nations, you need those people to care.

I do struggle with his being a Republican, though I appreciate him not Eastwooding it. And let's not pretend he's making masterworks. He may not reach the lofty cultural heights of Welcome to the Jungle again. But, in his words, "It Doesn't Matter!"

He also has a sadistic work ethic. Following him and Kevin Hart on Instagram is signing up to be reminded, "You could work more." But I'm cool with that. Sometimes, in the arts, you do wake up and the world is too heavy to lift your duvet. And in those moments, a brilliant stanza or inspiring quote just can't motivate you like The Rock singing at the gym.

Shakespeare in Love

You were expecting Boyz n the Hood? Yes, Shakespeare in Love, and I will fight you on it. Yes, it's Gwyneth and the less-talented Fiennes brother and Ben Affleck - but this is all their best work. Sure, Mr Darcy is Evil and Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush and Downton Abbey Butler are in full Panto mode. And ok, it's just in-joke after in-joke with a rousing score underneath. I don't care. I need this film like your flatmate needs Love Actually at Christmas. I love this film like your mum loves Joni Mitchell, and I will fight you. I will fucken fight you!

It has snappy dialogue –

Powerful stuff. And did I mention the score is majestic? I mean the final scene, where he narrates her voyage, and she keeps walking, and the theme builds slowly with her walk, rather than bursting in, and you know they'll never see each other again, but you think she'll be ok, and he'll be ok, and maybe the moment and the art is all they have!

There's spoilers, it's 20 years old! If you haven't seen it then how do you even forgive Shakespeare's systemic oppression of indigenous theatre? “Oh, it's The Tempest? Set in the Pacifc? Oh cool.”

I honestly don't know why I love this film. Just like I don't know why I'm accidentally rocking Joseph Fiennes' facial hair from it for my own play. Maybe sometimes art and a moment mix to crystallise a defining experience? Or I love a romance? Is it weird I have the soundtrack?

One thing my dad taught me was you need to learn to switch your brain off, to properly relax. Sometimes that means finding a way to tune out.

Rukahu is at BATS Theatre
Nov 15 - 19
Tickets from BATS Theatre