A play that started as one thing & ended as another

The relationship between Vili and his father is fractured in the play. [National Business Review]

Every production of a play is a different interpretation of what the playwright intended.

And when one is revived after many years, the world may have changed so much in the intervening years it no longer reflects society so much as its outdated and abandoned customs or prejudices.

That can make some plays irretrievable but, in some cases, such as in A Frigate Bird Sings, the revival after 14 years shines a rather different light on society from that intended by the playwrights.

A Frigate Bird Sings traces the life of a fa’afine, a Samoan youngster, who, after the death of his mother, is required by his grieving father to take over running the house and fulfill what is customarily in Samoa a female (or fa’afine) role.

But the boy, Vili, becomes a lonely man who befriends other fa’afine who earn their livings as drag queens on K Rd. He likes their outrageous style, mimicks it and develops a relationship with his brother’s rugby team captain.

Sadly, for a young man so full of hope, everything goes wrong. His father demands Vili looks after the family but he is also appalled that his son has become a daughter rather than a son and turns to drink; his brother Sione doesn’t like the drag queens’ behaviour and that Vili is leaving him to look after his father when he has a promising rugby career with the Blues; and the rugby captain can’t cope with society’s rejection of his relationship with Vili.

Director Alison Quigan, in her programme notes, sees the play as exploring “what it is to be different in a complex world that, on the one hand values tradition, and on the other accepts and celebrates a third gender”.

Auckland Theatre Company artistic director Colin McColl also writes that it’s a “very particular story but in its call for tolerance is also a universal one”.

The original play written by David Fane, Oscar Kightley and Nathaniel Lees probably was about tolerance. When they wrote it for the 1998 International Festival of the Arts, it caused quite a stir (and not just because the first two were mostly known for their comedy as The Naked Samoans).


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