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'NIU SILA' LOOKS AT PACIFIC MIGRATION

By Caroline Armstrong
  Niu Sila, a play about childhood friendship and Pacific Island migration will be kicking off Downstage Theatre’s 2004 Subscription season in April. Niu Sila – a unique new story of friendship – has been written by two of New Zealand’s top comedy writers – Oscar Kightley (Naked Samoans, Fresh Off the Boat) & Dave Armstrong (The Semisis, Spin Doctors).

Funny and poignant, Niu Sila is about a friendship spanning over thirty years, two cultures and one neighbourhood. In 1970s Wellington, six-year-old Ioane Tafioka – fresh off the boat from the Pacific – moves in next door to six-year-old Peter Burton. They begin an unlikely friendship that will change their lives.

What is different about Niu Sila is that it looks at Pacific migration from both palagi and Pacific Island points of view. ‘Many plays have looked at Pacific migration to New Zealand from a Pacific Islander’s point of view,’ says co-writer Oscar Kightley, who also co-wrote Fresh off the Boat, ‘but Niu Sila is the first to consider it from both Pacific and Palagi viewpoints. Niu Sila shows that Pacific migration has affected New Zealanders in more ways than just the clichés of sport and music.’

‘I hope palagi audience members who enjoy this play,’ says co-writer Dave Armstrong, ‘will entertain the idea that Pacific Islanders contribute far more to our society than cleaning our offices and scoring the odd try on the wing.’

Peopled with drunken uncles, crooked ministers, left-wing university professors and a no-nonsense Polynesian matriarch, this hilarious and thought-provoking story of friendship will delight and challenge anyone who has ever lived in New Zealand.

‘Even though it’s full of crack-up comedy,’ says Armstrong, ‘ I look at Niu Sila as a sad play. It’s a sort of a requiem to a time in New Zealand where white and brown kids grew up side by side. They went to the same schools and their Dads and Mums often had similar jobs. Now that’s all changed.’

Both Kightley, a Samoan, and Armstrong, a palagi, had close childhood friendships with children from the ‘other’ culture. During the writing process they swapped their often hilarious stories of encountering each other’s culture. ‘I had some palagi friends who I would visit for dinner,’ remembers
   

Dave Armstrong

Oscar Kightley

Dave Fane

  Kightley. ‘All I wanted to do was silently eat their wonderful food, then perhaps talk afterwards, but the parents kept interrupting my eating with their polite dinner-time conversation. Their friendly questions, which I felt obliged to answer, kept stopping me from eating!’

Armstrong remembers the warmth of the communal style of living of his Pacific friends. ‘My family was a comfortable and middle-class nuclear one – Mum, Dad and four kids. Yet down the road my Pacific friends had aunties, cousins, and all sorts of people dropping in all the time. I remember envying them, even though they didn’t have much money, and thinking their life was far more exciting than my boring old middle-class one!’

While much of Niu Sila relies on humorous childhood memories, there is also a serious undercurrent to the comedy and the play confront issues such as violence and racism – both personal and institutional. ‘I was never in trouble with the police as a kid,’ explains Armstrong, who grew up in Wellington in the 1970s, ‘but the minute I walked down the street with a Pacific Island kid, we would get stopped by the cops. We’d never done anything wrong, but they’d still stop us. That never happened when I was with palagi friends’. Kightely got so sick of being stopped by police for no apparent reason that he made a laminated sheet relating all his personal details. ‘Every time I got stopped I’d just hand over the sheet,’ says Kightley. This and other real-life incidents are used to humorous effect in the play.

As well as the politics of bicultural friendships, the sadness that often occurs as childhood friends grow up is also documented in Niu Sila. ‘Outrageous comedy occurs when kids from different cultures grow up side by side,’ says co-writer Dave Armstrong, ‘and Niu Sila reflects this. But the play also chronicles the tragedy of cultures on a collision course. Kids grow up and suddenly close childhood friendships don’t mean so much any more.’

Niu Sila stars Dave Fane (Naked Samoans) and Damon Andrews (The Tribe), each playing a virtuoso range of male and female characters. ‘In rugby terms it's a big ask and demands 120% from the two actors on stage playing all parts,’ says actor Dave Fane, who plays a huge range of both Pacific Island and palagi characters in the play. ‘I'm looking forward to working with old friends on a great story seen through a set of new eyes.’

Directed by Conrad Newport, with Design by Brian King and Lighting Design by Lisa Maule, Niu Sila opens at Downstage Theatre on Friday 2 April.
 
 
 

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