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Native Earth Performing Arts


Honouring Theatre: FRANGIPANI PERFUME

Dates and Venue 11-22 October @ Firehall Arts Centre Reviewer June Heywood


One of three plays celebrating the human spirit of indigenous peoples, Frangipani Perfume tells the story of three sisters who have moved from a small Samoan island to find work and a better life in New Zealand. What they find is menial work on their knees scrubbing floors to survive.

Each sister's character is different. The eldest, Naiki (Fiona Collins) has been holding the family together since their mother died and their father became ill. In one scene, she imagines she's adopted. She envisions a wealthy family and a palatial home. In front of the imaginary house is a frangipani tree shedding "petals like snowflakes." "But you've never seen snowflakes," retorts Pomu (Joy Vaela) the knowledgeable sister.

From Pomu we learn that Grandma and Margaret Mead, the anthropologist who went to Samoa, may have been best friends, possibly lovers. Pomu is the most sexually explicit sister. When she dances, her hips undulate and her ample behind sways.

The youngest sister, Tivi (Isobel Kalolo) is the wild child. We learn that she may have been tormenting the neighbour's cat. She's warned, "If you've done something to the blonde woman's cat you'll be put in jail for ever and you'll never hear wedding bells."

The "Wedding March" plays segueing into the next scene. Playwright Makerita Urale has strung action and dialogue like beads on a necklace. Born in Samoa, she expresses her love for the island by describing the frangipani tree in poetic terms. The blossoms are not pink but golden at sunset. They fall like "angels' wings." Frangipani perfume is made when "blossoms are in full bloom and the breeze washes over them (causing) the petals to fall like white rain… Soft as velvet. Soft as a dream."

Choreographer Teokotai Paitai has given the actors full range of expression through movement. In the beginning of the play, the actors perform a languid Maori dance with their hands, feet, and hips telling of their far off island home. In a defiant, sexually explicit dance, the actors mimic the actions of Tivi's ex-boyfriend now dancing with another woman. They hold their crouches as they thrust their hips forward to emulate intercourse before falling to the floor in a state of ecstasy.

The sisters quarrel. "Shut up! I hate you," they yell at one another in a crescendo of anger. Under Jennifer Lal's harsh blue light, the sisters fight with curved daggers. Their movements are deliberate, strong, heavy. Their stance is primitive. Their faces express rage. Finally, Naiki drops her weapon. Her sisters follow. All three drop to their knees and, as they did at the start of the play, return to scrubbing the floor.

The matinee audience comprised of fewer than twenty people but Collins, Vaele, and Kaloko in their simple, tan costumes performed as though to a full house. Rachel House directs this play with such sensitivity that its hard not to shed a tear by the end of the performance.

2006 June Heywood