Victor Rodger has always had a good nose for a story.
His background as a journalist has given him the gifts of witty repartee, deliciously blunt humour, and most of all, the ability to give a genuine human voice to a story – one that has travelled all the way from Los Angeles to American Samoa.
In Girl on a Corner Rodger argues that the tragic death of Shalimar Seuli in 1998 was more than a media scandal liberally spattered with rumour and unanswered questions. Under the brilliant direction of Anapela Polataivo and Vela Manusaute this hour-length production is a testimony to the fact that although the news may print black and white versions of what they think is the truth, the movie that we call life has a few more takes in it than might never make the silver screen.
Heading for the city of angels with big hopes of becoming a fashion designer, Shalimar (played by Amanaki Prescott) is nineteen and gorgeous: the fa’afafine every boy in the village wants. But with big dreams and a larger-than-life attitude she knows that her destiny to be a star lies across the seas. And things don’t quite work out as well as they should.
It’s 1997 and headlines are made when none other than the Nutty Professor, aka Eddie Murphy, is accused of picking up a ‘girl on a corner’. A year later Shalimar is dead and her twenty-one year old body is returned home. To be buried with a mask and in a suit.
Such are the facts. But Rodger’s play moves beyond the sensationalist news headlines into what could have been for this Samoan princess as she takes the reins of her own story on her own terms.
Joanna Toloa is outstanding (especially for her vocals) as Shalimar’s mother and Uncle Sergio (Sandy Vukalokalo) is brilliantly funny and well deserving of his own show. Aleni Tufuga, Gabriel Halatoa and Hans Masoe play Shalimar’s father, brother and schoolgirl crush respectively and, like Toloa and Vukalokalo, do more than just play familial roles. They all bring class, sass and truth to the story of how one young girl’s dreams didn’t get a chance to have the ending she wanted.
Similarly, Taufa Fisiinaua plays Eddie Murphy with commitment (especially with that goofy laugh) and, despite some nervousness and occasional accent quivering, kudos must be given to the young actor because he’s a character that if not already an anathema for you towards at the beginning of the play, you certainly won’t be heading to the Civic to rent Dr Doolittle anytime soon.
But the star of the night is Amanaki Prescott. A powerhouse of talent she gives Shalimar more than just a tribute – she gives the memory of a woman who could – should – have been allowed to make a dreams into a reality, a fitting elegy. Bold and unadulterated by any affectedness, Prescott does justice to the creative vision of both Rodger’s writing and the playful direction of Polataivo and Manusaute. Under a set of almost perfect lights (Jen Lal’s design is fitting for the episodic style of the production) and simple costuming (Lucia Farron Diamantis), she holds the audience’s attention with an easy twirl of perfectly manicured nails.
At times the energy drops just a tad and there are a few roughly hewn chunks thrown in but nothing too major. Under the seamless production of Karin Williams this all-Polynesian cast and crew heralds a tipping point in the New Zealand theatre scene and is a fabulous way to begin this year’s Auckland Fringe Festival. Don’t miss out.
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