Wild Dogs Under My Skirt began as a book of poems by the acclaimed New Zealand-Samoan poet Tusiata Avia. Adapting her book into a one-woman show, she toured with it from 2002 – 2008, from Jerusalem to Moscow to Vienna. Now the work has been adapted as a six-character play that has opened the SoHo Playhouse’s festival of three award-winning New Zealand productions in their North American premieres.
As directed by Anapela Polata’ivao who also appears in the New York production, the play is a powerful and engrossing study of the lives of Samoan women and their uneasy cultural collision with New Zealand. Unfortunately, at the performance under review no program was given out to explain that the Pacific Island actresses each played discrete characters. As many unfamiliar Samoan words are also used, a glossary would have been most helpful as New York audiences are unlikely to be versed in this foreign vocabulary. It is also helpful to know that Samoa was administered by New Zealand from 1914 to 1962 and today Samoans make up the largest ethnic minority in the country.
Speaking alternately, the six women talk of food, traditions, love, family, beliefs, ethics, dreams, abuse and New Zealand men. They speak of their dreams of a future and a better life. The language is earthy, raw, vital, colorful. Even without understanding every word, the gist is conveyed by the inflections and the performances. The evening includes song, dance, and speeches taken from passages in Avia’s book which are at times startling, revealing, amusing and tragic. They are sometimes presented like poetry, at others like dramatic monologues, and at times like choral reading.
As the author herself, Stacey Leilua has the central role, a liberated woman who has become empowered to take control of her life. Beginning by waving around a machete in the first scene, she along with the other women become wild dogs menacing the audience by the end of the evening. Ilasiaane Green is amusing as the ten-year-old Manila who speaks of her strict Aunty Fale and her abused dog Bingo. Petmal Petelo’s Aunty Fale is an authoritarian figure who prefers the old way of doing things assigned a speech of “Fings da Girls Should Know.”
Joanna Mika-Toloa is the gossipy Aunty Aovai who tells a story of the love life and adolescence of a young Samoan girl from her village. Vaimaila Carolyn Baker is the idealized South Sea beauty who speaks of the ancient cannibalism of her people, the high cost of food, and how little things have actually changed. In one monologue, “Devil Pa’umuku Girl,” director Polata’ivao enthroned on a chair speaks as the human incarnation of “Teine Sa” who guards and protects the village but flaunts her sexuality.
Mario Faumui is responsible for the ethnic dances which punctuate the show, while Leki Jackson-Bourke performs the live drumming which raises the temperature periodically. Jane Hakaraia’s minimalist set includes fantastically carved tall chairs with artwork by Tyler Vaeau. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is a fascinating and immersive examination of Samoan life and traditions strictly from the point of view of the women. They move from subservient to empowered in the course of the evening. The Samoan syntax and word order is colorful and pungent. New Yorkers who cannot make out all of the Samoan words and customs may be inspired to do a little Googling after seeing this powerful, yet mysterious show to Americans who know little of the Pacific Islanders.
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (through January 18, 2020)
Three Award-Winning Productions from New Zealand: Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, The Modern Maori Quartet: Two Worlds, and The Contours of Heaven performed in repertory January 4 – 18, 2020
The SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, west of Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.sohoplayhouse.com
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission