“I’m sick of having to perform, and say something smart or vicious, but if that’s what they want, that’s what I’ll give them, because they don’t deserve to see the real me.” The confessional outburst comes from an unlikely quarter in a play full of quiet truths. Drag queen Shaninqua is the familiar face of Polynesian cross-dressing. Meeting all our expectations, from her provocative clothing to her acerbic tongue, she holds a rein of sexual terror in the small, B-grade nightspot she claims as her own. She and her sidekick Deja Vu abuse, tease, tickle and thump the punters. They are the Ultravixens.
But this is not a play about drag – thankfully. It is a play about identity. Oscar Kightley and David Fane have reached beyond the stereotypes, and written a play from the inside. For all those who felt that silly, voyeuristic efforts like Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert were an insult to the intelligence of queens, transgenders and their ilk (not to mention the odd unambiguous cinema-goer), this is, at last, a subtle, beautifully observed study of one of the most precious and intriguing gifts of Polynesian culture – the third sex.
There is no equivalent for the word fa’afafine in English: any translation cages the butterfly. It is not “gay”, not “homo” – these are western concepts, alien to Polynesia. It is not “transvestite” nor transsexual, which are clinical descriptions redolent of deviance. “Effeminate” implies weakness and a sort of impotence inappropriate to these deliciously sexual creatures. “Drag” is again a western construct. The only word that does them justice is “queen” – because there is the self-consciousness of the Chosen in their bearing.
A breed of boys who won’t be boys, but who see no need to be girls either, they inhabit a world in-between. These are no pathetic misfits saving their bar tips to pay for a sex change in Sydney. On the contrary, they lay claim to both a schlong and a slip.
Traditionally, life in the Islands does not force them into any performances of sexual parody. They float free. They act as go-betweens for young men and women separated by religion, taboo and shyness. They are friends to the women, educators and civilisers of the men.
They are the mischief-makers, clowns, performers, treasured and celebrated as some of the best dancers and singers. They are respected teachers, the backbone of the hospitality business and, less obviously, include some leading bureaucrats and government officials. Island society could not function without them.
But when they shift out of their culture, out of their context, it all falls to pieces. We make no space for them here. Relocated, their own culture acquires a sense of embarrassment and often disowns them. The church disapproves.
The fa’afafine’s island freedoms begin to look dubiously amoral in an urban New Zealand setting. And like so many other aspects of Polynesian life, the fa’afafine have been colonised by western gay culture, drag and prostitution. But instead of giving them strength and allies, it’s just a new (culturally subversive) norm to conform to. Their formerly celebrated duality is overlooked, forgotten, lost in the crush.
This modern metamorphosis is one of the stress fractures through Island society. “Everybody has roles in our culture,” observes young fa’afafine Vili. That certainty is his greatest source of comfort, especially now the family has been uprooted to New Zealand – but it is to become his torment.
Vili has an innate sense of what it means to be fa’afafine, but not yet how this fits into his new home. His mother has died, and it is only natural for him to take over as the “female” head of the household, caring for his grieving, alcoholic father and athletic younger brother. He is valued, as long as he doesn’t test the unspoken limits his father has set. When he tries on one of his mother’s old frocks, the cracks start to show. Vili’s assets become his liabilities.
Kightley and Fane then set the two worlds on a collision course. Enter Hugh, captain of the rugby team that Vili’s brother Sione plays for. Hugh is a kid from New Plymouth, and just as confused as Vili. He overlooks the inconvenience of Vili’s gender, and sees only the woman that Vili wants to be. He knows little about Samoan culture, and understands less. Face value, after a few beers, is enough.
This could be totally implausible, but a combination of the writing and Geoff Dolan’s performance as an archetypal Kiwi bloke make it happen. Meanwhile, Vili is in search of role models, as well as love. He needs other fa’afafine; he finds two drag queens: “Most men see us as sideshow freaks. Queens of the Pacific! ...They’re only being nice to us because we’re like some exotic bar decoration... They wouldn’t serve us if we were ordinary Samoans.” They are hardened, cynical and corrupted. Vili is fragile and innocent beside them, but drawn inescapably into their world. He makes the understandable mistake of thinking he is one of them. He learns from their independence, but drinks too deep.
Iaheto Ah Hi has the gentle understated Vili and his loss of innocence pitched just right. Director Nathaniel Lees has coaxed what seems like the optimal performance out of each cast member. Every role had the potential to become a caricature. It is a tribute to him, in part, that none of them do – they are all recognisable, tangible, believable.
The staging is bold too, but less successful. Under the feet of the cast are the golden sands of their Samoan home. The only props are rocks. This works well for some of the more ritualistic and allegorical scenes, but without any other help from the staging, there’s too much miming in the everyday drama. The cast have built up their characters well, but a certain amount of clumsy make-do impedes them.
The play is physical and energetic, from the muscular well-oiled bodies of the men at the start to the naked dissolution of the queens. Tenderness and violence are never separated by much. Frigate Bird goes on to explore the bonds and dynamics of brotherly love. Sione respects and cares deeply for his older, girlish brother Vili, supports him against his father’s intolerance and conformity. Samoan masculinity is not threatened by the fa’afafine; rather, it is set advantageously against it. But Sione, transplanted into New Zealand, is also slowly corrupted by the influences around him, the compensatory machismo of rugby culture. As Vili sets about testing the limits of his family’s affection, the brothers split into the two least admirable aspects of their father, his drunkenness and his intransigence.
What do you do when you find that you no longer have a place in the society you live in, that an accident of birth has made you an outcast? They have their feminine power, but both within and outside Frigate Bird the fa’afafine are at the bottom of the heap, powerless and dependent.
They have only a loose alliance with the gay community, survive as mere figures of fun in the straight world, are often too outrageous and controversial to make it in the workforce. They are not specifically recognised in the Human Rights Acts which confer protection from discrimination. And they are Polynesian. This is partly why so many end up as habitues of K Road. It’s about survival. And yet these people have a mystical heritage, a respected, almost ceremonial role in their island homes. They have a need to be valued, to be taken seriously.
Kightley and Fane go beyond the simple pathos to explore the real fears of these special, vulnerable people. Theirs is a culture where from birth to death you are rarely alone: the houses have no walls, each building packed with siblings, extended families, life is structured around familiar obligations – privacy is an unfamiliar state. So to be cast out, to be without a family, to be alone in the world, is for these people a kind of hell. Loneliness holds the greatest terror of all.
Kightley and Fane have written a classic of New Zealand theatre. The Edinburgh Festival talent scouts extended an immediate invitation this year when the play premiered in Wellington. It should fascinate them up in the North. It will open a few eyes down this way too.
UPDATEAnita McNaught is currently based in London and Istanbul as a roving correspondent for Al Jazeera English.