Donna Sue Robson specialises in the communication- and healing-arts. Jamie Natural Health and Healing is her energy-healing consultancy. Her modalities, workshops and boutique natural products can be viewed and purchased from www.jamienatural.com.
From Samoa to Sunshine, the sounds of Pasefika
ReHavaiki is the storyline of Pacific Islander culture, set in Sunshine. The St Albans Bowery Theatre audience glowed with pride over this extraordinary musical theatre experience.
ReHavaiki is a complete cultural-arts experience. I cannot think of another show that has been able to generate this level of community hype, warmth and theatrical achievement. From beginning to end, the musical held the audience in rapture: musically we were treated to upbeat, islander-improvised rhythms set in modern-day Sunshine, which gave the show humour and community relevance. Pacific Islander audiences are extremely proud of this show- it is their stories and brings much-loved, home-grown characters to life. ReHavaiki is written from the heart, staged in Melbourne's Pacific Islander heartland and connects to each and every human heart.
It is the homegrown, community focus that makes this show so special and emotional. The humour is riotous because the characters are real: audiences can see their own lives and families onstage which affirms musical roots and cultural identity. ReHavaiki, the first Australian Pacific Island musical, is a collaboration between Western suburbs Melbourne, Samoa, Tonga and Maori cultures. It is about the importance of culture that runs through all of us.
The story of ReHavaiki begins with the Gods. Their mission was to teach humans about their spirit, spirit-land and the spiritual realm that comes through traditions and art. Feeling betrayed and ignored, many of the Gods were ready to leave Earth- humans were tiring, unappreciative and 'just didn't get it'. But they agreed to give it one last shot- even if they were to help one person, maybe their effort would be worth it. The rousing and powerful Immortal Pasefika opened the show and set the vision.
The script, in terms of dialogue, characterisation and content is outstanding, as are the songs and original musical score. Do not fall into the trap of dismissing community musical theatre as unprofessional or substandard. It is, in fact, the opposite as director/writer Fulisia Asalemo Tofete and composer Rita Seumanutafa are both highly qualified, formerly trained artists who are also devoted to community engagement and to promoting their unique cultural heritage across divides.
As women's circles make a resurgence, ReHavaiki reaffirmed what women do naturally: teach, guide, share and imprint their stories.
ReHavaiki has been written with technical precision and genuine passion. The grassroots characters are likeable, recognisable and engaging. The smoothness of this production exposes an intimate creative-collaboration process. The power of this script is in that nothing felt scripted. It was sensitively performed, all actors animated the stage with their zeal and generous ensemble-energy.
ReHavaiki is so 'fresh' that it is easy to overlook the formal artistry and musical compositional brilliance that has made it such a triumph. The contribution of the live band, led by musical director Steve Tafea, cannot be underestimated. They created the rhythmic license for this story to unfold and set the foundation for vocal harmonies to 'baptise' a devoted and excited audience. Steve Tafea told me after the show: 'a lot of our musicians can't read music, but the rhythms are in our DNA: we just feel it and know what to do, how to play it and work with vocalists. We all sing together at church, so it's natural for us to harmonise and sing together.' As well as local church choirs (there are 6 Samoan churches in St Albans) most ReHavaiki actors are members of The Melbourne Samoan Choir, The Pasefika Vitoria Choir and many of the men are part of The Melbourne Pasefika Men's Choir. Rita Seumanutafa and Steve Tafea have created a musical that allows interpretation and improvisation. ReHavaiki has achieved 'immediacy' that is built on trust and heritage. Vocally, special mention must be made of Tapu Elise who played the part of Taema, Goddess of the Tatau. She brought raw emotion to the score. As she led the women's choral-ensemble in Learn from Me, there was not a dry eye in the house.
Culture as a theme is so broad and complex that it could have frayed into trite diatribe. But again, the strength of the script and 'big picture' behind the storyline, made ReHavaiki work. This gutsy musical was produced by Picaa, (Pacific Island Creative Arts Australia Inc.) which has a clear mission to focus on 'the creative arts at the community level'. Their artistic breadth includes: Pasefika music, dance, film, theatre, art and craft. All of these art forms (bar film) were part of the show, which is a statement about the high-value placed on varied art forms in Pacific Island cultures. Costume design (Georgina Atapo Taupau Tafea) is highlighted both in the program notes and on-stage in ReHavaiki's 'women's weaving circle' scene: as Taema explains to the Gen (Elandrah Feo) who is looking for her culture: 'it is not just weaving and cloth- each thread holds a story and as we weave, we learn those stories and as we weave, we add our own'. As women enter the women's circle to talk, weave and listen, culture is passed on.
When the 'ReHavaiki Babies' ran onto the stage, the values of 'community' and 'family' became universal.
Sunshine does not create juxtaposition- it creates new storylines to Pasefika culture. ReHavaiki is not just the story of immigration. Picaa provides opportunities for Pasefika creative arts to be more visible within the Islander Australian community, as well as other Australian and multi-cultural groups. A Maori grandmother who sat behind me touched my shoulder and whispered: ''family' and 'community' touch us all. This is not just our culture – culture belongs to everyone'. ReHavaiki's focus on culture is not just about art and communities- it presents culture as a human need and part of our search for identity.
ReHavaiki presents a cross-generational perspective which makes culture continuous. The Bowery buzz heightened as 'ReHavaiki Babies' ran onto the stage and sang Alphabet Song and Colours. The children's moment was a heart-warming cause for reflection: there was so much history in these selections (Colours is a traditional Maori song and the lyrics of Alphabet Song were written by the London Missionary Society in Samoa) and I smiled as I imagined the hours of fun, large family groups must have had at rehearsals. The 'ReHavaiki Babies' illustrated the value of 'family' to a 'T'.
ReHavaiki filled the impressive Bowery Theatre with full-bellied laughter. Again, accolades to director/writer Fulisia Asalemo Tofete for humour-injection and for reaching a perfect balance of light and shade, and character perspective. The young people in the Pasefika support group who had to cope with the cultural demands of being Islander in Australia, provided light humour and songs Proud to be Brown and Welcome to Sunshine, totally rocked. Dance choreography that interspaced traditional-style with hip-hop (Tavai Fa'asavalu, Sanele Savea, Elandrah Feo and Christian Gilbert) also delighted crowds. It was, however actor Vineta Ioapo (Nala) who completely stole the show. Vineta quite literally belongs on the stage. Talent discovery is yet another feather-in-the-cap of ReHavaiki.
ReHavaiki is community musical theatre at its absolute best. Pasefika culture connects Sunshine to Melbourne and across the Yarra; Samoa to Tonga to New Zealand and back again to Melbourne. Closing with the epic remix of We Are Pasefika, ReHavaiki connects us all.
The music and dance sequences of ReHavaiki are culturally authentic. The band need to be acclaimed: live onstage they provided upbeat, earthy and infectious rhythms.
About Pacific Island Creative Arts Australia (Picaa)
Picaa Inc., was founded by composer and musical creator Rita Seumanutafa to showcase the many talented and skilled Pacific Island singers, dancers, actors, craftsman and artists living in Australia. In only 18 months, Picaa has already produced: Pasefika Vitoria Choir, Amataga O Le Alofa (Samoan theatre hosted by Multicultural Arts Victoria), The Melbourne Pasefika Men's Choir (tradition of male Pasefika choral singing), Picaa Skool: Acting For Youth (5-week program to train young actors initiated by Asalemo Tofete), Picaa Strings (island-style string band that promotes Pasefika guitar music), Musifika Songfest (Pasefika choral singing), Fatu Na Toto (dance collaboration with New Zealand Pacific dance company 'LeMoana'), The Picaa Tuiga Class (traditional heirloom crafts) and ReHavaiki (Australia's first ever Pacific Island musical production). There are no limits to what this grassroots, community arts organisation can produce so watch out for their upcoming projects, workshops, as well as festival-inclusion performances and multi-arts productions. Picaa has already enriched the cultural life of Australia and has shone the spotlight on Pasefika communities of Melbourne. You can follow Picaa on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, @PicaaInc.