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“Spiritual Play”: Ritual Performance And Spirituality In Samoan Theatre

Published onOct 01, 2017
“Spiritual Play”: Ritual Performance And Spirituality In Samoan Theatre


Pacific Island (Pasifika) migrants in New Zealand have created a unique diasporic theatre, exploring the impact of migration on the family and cultural institutions. There are at least thirteen different Pacific languages and cultures in New Zealand, each with its own distinct ritual and spiritual traditions, such as the invocation of spiritual agency in the pre-colonial Samoan theatre form fale aitu. Aitu literally means ghost or spirit, and during fale aitu performances the lead actor “becomes” a spirit when in role, endowing him with a supernatural sanction that allows him to parody authority figures in the village. Spiritual beliefs in Pacific cultures have been radically transformed since the intervention of Christian missionaries from the 1830s onwards. Present-day churches foreground theatrical events such as White Sunday, during which children perform dramatic sketches and plays. Many Pacific performers had their first experience of performance at White Sunday. This paper examines performative strategies that manifest the spiritual dimension onstage in Samoan theatre. The fale aitu tradition has been adapted and hybridised in performances including Kightley and Ifopo’s Romeo and Tusi and Kneubuhl’s Think of a Garden, while Muagututi’a and Vaele’s Angels reconstructs a White Sunday performance onstage. Samoan theatre provides a distinctive case study of syncretic performance practice that re-interprets ritual and spiritual practices in the context of contemporary urban cultures.

Keywords: Pasifika; Diaspora; Fale Aitu; Performance; Samoan Theatre


The congregation gathers in the Methodist Wesley Church in Taranaki Street, Wellington, where the back wall is dominated by a wooden cross and four colourful banners representing the congregations that share this space: Samoan, Fijian, Tongan and Palagi (European).1 The plush red carpet down the aisle continues up steps to a raised stage, where the Samoan service will take place. In this Lotu Tamaiti (White Sunday) service, the minister literally takes a back seat to the children of the congregation. At noon, the children gather at the church doors and begin singing the first of many hymns in Samoan. They form a procession down the aisle and take their places in the choir stalls. There are 34 children of all ages from pre-schoolers to older teenagers. All are dressed in white, symbolising purity. The girls wear white lavalavas, white tops with red ribbons and garlands of white flowers on their heads; some of the boys wear jackets and trousers with red ties or bow-ties, some wear white lavalavas. The minister welcomes the congregation and then takes a seat at the side of the stage as the children deliver the majority of the service.

Towards the end of the service, the children perform their “items” in family groups. Even pre-schoolers have their chance to be in the spotlight, the microphone is held up for them to recite a passage from the Bible they’ve learned by heart. Some of them are too shy when it comes to their big moment, others get a big round of applause. The older children recite Bible verses and perform action songs, moving slickly in unison. Some are very confident on stage, others are more hesitant. Mothers and grandmothers sit on the steps giving encouragement or helping out if someone forgets their lines. Toddlers wander freely throughout the church, sometimes joining the older children as they perform, copying the dance moves or inventing their own. At the end of the service the minister thanks everyone for coming to support the children, and they process down the aisle, singing in harmony. Once the formalities are over, the children rush back to the stage to take group photos on their iPhones and iPads.

Afterwards, everyone gathers in the hall which is set up with long tables for the feast. We queue up to load our plates with Samoan delicacies like taro, mussels, eel, squid salad and a special order from KFC. The Minister’s wife tells us how important it is that the children learn the Samoan values (fa’asamoa) balancing these with the Palagi lifestyle. Some of the children can understand Samoan but have difficulty speaking it. White Sunday helps the children gain confidence in speaking their language. Once the meal is over, the celebrations conclude with a group discussion where the parents give the children feedback on their performances.


For the children of many Samoan migrants in Aotearoa/New Zealand, learning to perform is a rite of passage that occurs regularly through the practice of Christian religion. Performances at White Sunday and in Sunday School link spirituality and performativity, within the context of maintaining a strong sense of community, culture and language acquisition. Given the centrality of performance to young Samoans’ education, perhaps it is not surprising that since the 1990s, Samoan theatre practitioners have made a major contribution to the development of a unique Pasifika2 theatre tradition in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Pasifika theatre often tells stories of the Samoan diaspora, dramatising the impact of migration on the family and other cultural institutions, critiquing the racism often directed at Pasifika migrants, and dealing with the doubleness of living simultaneously in competing cultural contexts. In his book Pacific Performances Christopher Balme argues that:

The new Pacific theatre … is a theatre of remembering focused on rediscovering cultural roots in order to fashion new and sometimes multiple identities. (Balme, p. 191).

A significant element of this “remembering” and “rediscovering cultural roots” is the integration of spirituality and aspects of religious ritual into the form and themes of Pasifika theatre.

There are at least thirteen different Pasifika languages and cultures in New Zealand, each with its own distinct performative and spiritual tradition, with Samoans the largest of these groups (nearly 50%)3. Samoa has been politically divided since 1899 into American Samoa (a territory of the USA) and Western Samoa, now the independent state of Samoa. Western Samoa was a German colony until 1914, when it was administered by New Zealand until independence was finally achieved in 1962. From the 1960s onwards there has been widespread migration from Samoa to New Zealand, Australia and the USA. In this paper I focus on the spiritual and religious dimensions of Samoan theatre in New Zealand, examining performative strategies that manifest the spiritual dimension onstage. I draw upon ideas outlined by Anita Hammer in her book Between Play and Prayer. Hammer defines spiritual performance as that “which takes place when humans perform in order to call into being a spiritual presence” (26). Samoan theatre in New Zealand is influenced both by pre-colonial spiritual epistemologies, and by Christian ritual practices. In Samoan plays, the spirit world co-exists with a playful sense of humour based in spiritual agency, reflecting what Hammer defines as “spiritual play”(28). Hammer argues that “the distance between prayer, a primary indicator of the serious life and play is, in fact, not so great as the notion of secularism in industrial societies has taught us” (26). Samoan theatre often uses playful performative strategies to deal with serious issues, blending the spiritual and political in innovative ways. Hammer suggests that: “Dramaturgies that involve spiritual reference demand attention to processes of communication that transgress the boundaries between aesthetics and the spiritual”(28). In Samoan theatre, aesthetics and the spiritual dimension are often intertwined, breaking down cultural and performative boundaries.


The New Zealand national museum Te Papa Tongarewa contains many examples of representations of pre-Christian Polynesian deities carved from wood or stone. In the nineteenth century these were denounced as “idols” by missionaries and often destroyed.4 In pre-Christian Samoa a variety of gods were worshipped, presided over by Tagaloa, the creator of the universe. This polytheistic world-view is reflected in the opening scene of Albert Wendt’s play The Songmaker’s Chair (2004) where the main character Peseola channels Tagaloa, singing his creation story, and naming the primary atua (gods) (7-8). Although the play is a family drama set in contemporary New Zealand, this recitation gives an indigenous Pasifika spiritual framework for the performance, enhancing the sense of the migrant Peseola clan’s origins in the ancient cultures of the Samoan Islands.

Alongside the main gods, there were also aitu (spirits), who were lesser deities and who may be the spirits of deceased humans. Hamilton notes that “Atua may have been somewhat remote from the general affairs of humans, but aitu were certainly greatly involved in them and needed to be invoked, placated or contacted frequently” (164). As we shall see, aitu play a major role in Samoan theatre.

The first Christian missionary John Williams of the London Missionary Society settled in Samoa in 1836 (Simpson 135), followed by French Marist priests who introduced Catholicism in 1845 (Hamilton 163). Simpson argues that the enthusiastic adoption of Christianity was made easier because Samoans already believed in one supreme being, with the Christian God being seen as an equivalent of Tagaloa (Simpson 135). This religious transition, however, did not necessarily lead to the exclusion of former beliefs. In the 1930s Keesing maintained that “Instead of accepting Christianity and allowing it to re- mould their lives to its form, the Samoans have taken the religious practices taught to them and fitted them inside Samoan custom, making them a part of native culture” (qtd. in Va’I 78). Hamilton observes that sometimes Catholicism adapted to Samoan customs, giving examples of how priests allowed traditional Samoan death rites to be carried out in the church (163), illustrating that religious adaptation and appropriation went in both directions. Sinavaiana argues that “while most Samoans identify themselves as Christian … there is still a widespread belief in spirit lore” (194). The Samoan Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi has written about the “culture of whispers” surrounding pre-Christian Samoan religious beliefs, the legacy of the early Christian missionaries. Tui Atua argues that “The Samoan indigenous religion is not to be ashamed of, and especially not by Samoans. It is core to our identity as Samoans” (15).

While The Songmaker’s Chair opens with an evocation of the pre-Christian gods, other Samoan plays are framed with Christian hymns and prayers. For example, Dianna Fuemana’s Falemalama (2006), a moving account of the life of the playwright’s mother, begins and ends with Christian prayers in the Samoan language. Most of the play is performed in English, so the Samoan prayers create a spiritual framing for Falemalama’s story, underlining her strong faith which carries her through the struggles of her life as she moves from American Samoa to Niue to New Zealand. Fale’s mantra “O le Atua na te silafia mea ‘uma” (“God sees everything”) punctuates her story. Her belief in the love of God provides comfort throughout her life as she encounters illness, depression and domestic abuse. The spiritual framing of the narratives in The Songmaker’s Chair and Falemalama demonstrate the close connection between Samoan religious beliefs and Samoan theatrical storytelling.

In writing about pre-Christian Samoa, Tui Atua emphasizes how closely linked performance was to social rituals and religious belief. He explains how “the organs of the human body underline human divinity and spirituality” and how sex was regarded as a “sacred act” (26). Courtship rituals were enacted through dances such as the sa’e (naked dance) which required the dancers to display and flaunt their genitals, “not as instruments of sinful pleasure but as gifts from God Tagaloa” (28). Such public expressions of sexuality were banned by missionaries and are considered offensive to the “religious sensibilities of Christian Samoans” (28-9).


Theatre is part of everyday life in Samoa and is very different from the formal form of theatre seen in the Western world. Fale aitu (satirical comedy) is one of Samoa’s oldest forms of performance art (Va’ai et al 189).

Like the fertility dances of the pre-Christian era, Samoan comedy performance springs from a spiritual basis. The literal meaning of the pre-colonial form fale aitu, is “house of spirits” or “ghost house”. Caroline Sinavaiana writes about the spiritual aspects of fale aitu, in which authority figures are parodied through verbal and physical clowning. During fale aitu performances the lead clown is literally considered to transform into an aitu when in role:

It is the ghost who delivers the punch lines that carry the social or political criticism home to the particular authority figure being lampooned … This supernatural sanction, then, theoretically relieves the actors of responsibility for what is said and done in the comedy. (196)

Ritual clowning performance is not unique to Samoa but is found widely throughout the Pacific Islands. In his book Woven Gods Vilsoni Hereniko divides Pacific clowning practices into secular (spontaneous and primarily for entertainment) and ritual clowning (containing sacred or symbolic significance). Within these broad parameters, he demonstrates a wide diversity of clowning practices, including a sketch in Tonga featuring “an over-sexed clergyman” (146), female clowns in Tokelau who “act as mediators between quarreling men by clowning to diffuse tensions” (148), and clowning as part of funeral rites in Papua New Guinea (156). Hereniko examines the phenomenon of female clowns in Rotuma who “deliberately provoke laughter in the midst of serious rituals” such as weddings (126). Hereniko argues that the female clown “embodies female and male, human and divine. She fuses ritual and play, stasis and movement, order and disorder – indeed the forces in society and nature that are essential for life and its regeneration” (133). Unlike the Rotuman clowns, fale aitu is customarily an all-male performance form. Hereniko suggests that clowns were male in Samoa and Tahiti because their performances often took place within the context of “boating expeditions” and young men were “more mobile than mothers and wives, whose services were needed at home” (132-3).

Like most other forms of Pacific clowning, fale aitu has both a verbal and a physical dimension. Sinavaiana gives the example of a comedy sketch parodying a Western style medical operation where the mother of the patient was played by a male in a flowery dress who “spoke in high-pitched tones and whining cadences” (199). In place of an anaesthetic, the doctor stunned the patient with a large wooden mallet, opened him up with a carpenter’s saw, and extracted a long string of sausages (intestines) with large pliers (199-200). Sinavaiana notes that this very physical sketch uses “comic techniques of exaggeration, irony, and reversal” and “reflects a genuine anxiety that Samoans sometimes articulate about certain Western medical practices” (200). Other sketches are more subtle, but no less physical, such as those of the famous Samoan comedian Petelo, whose “ability to mimic a wide range of human and animal characters is so greatly admired by Samoan audiences …” (201). The embodied dimension of Pacific clowning in general is reinforced by Hereniko, who gives numerous examples including parodic mimicry, hip-wagging, exaggerated arm movements, flirting, wrestling, probing orifices in mock medical examinations, sexual innuendo and “simulation of bodily functions such as urination or defecation” (143-66). Comedy functions as a universal language in the Pacific with a multitude of functions, combining community celebration, political subversion and religious ritual.

The traditional fale aitu practices have been widely adapted in New Zealand Pasifika theatre, with several important theatre artists influenced by a workshop organised by Justine Simei-Barton of the Auckland company Pacific Theatre in 1996. Playwright Stephanie Johnson commented that the audience for a public presentation at the workshop were “captivated by the immediacy and energy of fale aitu” and predicted that “Pacific Theatre could find its niche in this new hybrid. … it is both subversive and peace-keeping” (np). Since then, the fale aitu influence has found its way into numerous Samoan plays, and the authority figures being parodied are often ministers of religion.


In Oscar Kightley and Erolia Ifopo’s Romeo and Tusi (1997) a Samoan girl, Tusi, falls in love with a Māori boy Anaru when they are playing Romeo and Juliet in a school production. As in Shakespeare’s play, the barrier to the happiness of the young lovers is their warring parents. Therefore, much of the fale aitu style critique is directed at the prejudice of the Samoan and Māori mothers which prevents their children from developing their relationship. The other major fale aitu influence is the representation of religious authority, in the form of the local minister. Whereas in Shakespeare’s play Friar Laurence is a sympathetic character who supports the young lovers in opposition to their controlling families, the Minister in Romeo and Tusi is thoroughly corrupt, using his privileged position in the community to line his own pockets. He constantly makes comic verbal slip-ups revealing that he is siphoning off church funds for his own benefit. In an early scene he greets the young protagonists as he runs a Housie5 game at the church:

MINISTER: Tusi, Anaru it’s good to see you young people here supporting the church and helping our fund raiser for my new BMW, I mean our new church building. (Kightley and Ifopo 8)

The Minister’s fraudulent activities are underlined by his apparent lack of knowledge of Biblical texts. He improvises to give the impression of his spiritual authority:

MINISTER: When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom, let it be let it be. (33)

The minister’s recourse to Beatles lyrics in lieu of liturgical knowledge comically represents him as a con-man rather than a spiritual guide. His generic character name adds to the impression that the target of the satire is ministers of religion in general, pointing to a broader critique of Pacific churches. Va’ai notes that:

There is enormous social pressure to contribute financially to the church. Samoans often struggle to balance family needs with their duties to support their churches. (92)

The pressures exerted by Samoan churches on their congregations in New Zealand has attracted media attention, such as a front page story in a Wellington newspaper about the tithing practices of the Samoan Congregational Church:

Reverend Popo Su’a owns four houses, lives rent free and does not pay power or phone bills. Yet just weeks before Christmas his Porirua parishioners were asked to give him $30,000 - $500 each – for spending money on a holiday to Samoa. … the request … was causing problems for many families [who] had taken out loans to cover the amount. … they were “shamed” into giving as much as they could because the names and the amount donated were read out in church. (Tyler 1)

This story contributes to perceptions of Samoan ministers leading comfortable lifestyles at the expense of low income parishioners. These critiques have been transposed into aesthetic form, such as a painting by Samoan artist Andy Leleisi’uao entitled ‘Honest to God’ (1998). This depicts a group of grotesque Polynesian pastors in sunglasses and black cassocks against a red background, with the inscription “Samoan Born Ministers Are Wankers.”6 Two of the ministers appear to be strangling parishioners dressed in white.

The minister in Romeo and Tusi is a similarly critical portrait of corrupt authority in the form of organised religion. As in Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers go to the minister for advice, but he only agrees to help them because Tusi bribes him with a donation for his Sky TV subscription (53). The Minister cynically exploits the faith invested in him by his parishioners. Sinavaiana argues that fale aitu is an effective tool in questioning the power structures installed by colonial authority. She analyses a sketch by the respected Samoan comedian Petelo in which he parodies an elderly minister:

The figure being satirized here is that of the elder pastor, whose addled reading of the Scripture and nonsensical exhortations to his congregation make him a ludicrous figure of fun, rather than the august and honored personage of real life. (202-3)

Petelo’s pastor is a close relative of Kightley’s minister, in that both deconstruct the religious power structures which are dominant in the lives and finances of so many Samoan families. Sinavaiana argues that such representations of religious figures highlight “the problem of power being abused when misappropriated from the bicultural confusion of colonialism” (204). In fale aitu performance, through the supernatural agency of the spirit of the performer and the impact of public performance, the actor gains a power which neutralises or challenges the power that the minister holds in everyday life.


The overwhelming significance of Christian religion in Samoan culture is illustrated by its central place in every aspect of life, including government. As Va’ai has noted, the preamble to the Constitution of Western Samoa begins with the words, “In the Holy Name of God, the Almighty, the Everloving” (77). Va’ai demonstrates the crucial social function played by Samoan churches in present-day diasporic communities in New Zealand, Australia and the USA:

These churches serve as centres of social and religious activity and sustain a form of collective identity away from Samoa. … the churches overseas have become pseudo-Samoan villages where the Samoan language is used for services and cultural practices are observed. (90-1)

Many New Zealand-based Samoan theatre-makers had their first experience of performing on White Sunday (Lotu Tamaiti), which occurs annually on the second Sunday in October. The literal translation of Lotu Tamaiti is ‘church service of children’, and children perform dramatic sketches, recitations, song and dance in church. Simpson notes that: “Childhood requires deferential humility and service to the older members of the ‘aiga [family]” (137), arguing that on White Sunday, this status is ceremonially reversed, as children “’act out’ adult responsibilities and experience adult prestige” (134). For Simpson however, this temporary release of power from elders to children is not liberatory: “the status inversion serves only a temporary release, so that the society might reaffirm its structure in the morning” (147).

In discussing the place of children at the bottom of the Samoan social hierarchy, Simpson notes that “Behaviour straying from the child’s customary low status may result in corporal punishment, and any adult may use physical discipline when children fail to meet expectations” (137). Yet such demands of parents on their children to excel in White Sunday sketches appears to be effective in creating strong performances in the young actors. Simpson observes, “the children show an exceptional commitment and focus, especially considering their age. They speak loudly and articulately, rarely breaking serious expression”(147). This is the result of adult coaching and intensive rehearsal in preparation for White Sunday as parents require performance rigor and discipline from their children.

Simpson sees a strong connection between fale aitu and White Sunday, noting that both “provide a ceremonial safety valve” for the least powerful members of society (147). Simpson argues that:

Fale aitu provides a release for the common people who, for a moment in time, may laugh and jest at the powers that dictate the circumstances of their lives. Similarly, on Lotu a Tamaiti, children receive momentary relief from the frustrations they experience in the lower class of society. (140)

This notion of performance as a spiritually sanctioned release valve for social tensions continues in the secular aesthetic practice of Pasifika theatre in New Zealand, becoming more transgressive and critical of hierarchical power structures.


The influence of Samoan churches on young people is central to Angels (2009) a play by Tanya Muagututi’a and Joy Vaele.7 Angels depicts the long-term friendship between four Samoan girls who meet at church when they perform the Biblical “Story of Ruth” for White Sunday.8 Later they form a soul and gospel band – The Angels - to play in church. This brings them into conflict with their Pastor, who like the Minister in Romeo and Tusi becomes a performed critique of the church’s patriarchal authority.

The White Sunday performance is a “play within a play” that illuminates the broader themes of the work. The girls perform the Biblical story of Naomi and Ruth from the Book of Ruth, in which Naomi and her husband Elimelech move from Israel to Moab (Ruth 1: 1-2), a clear parallel with the migration of Samoan families to New Zealand. The death of Naomi’s husband and sons suggests the hardships of the migrant experience while Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth’s decision to worship the God of the Israelites recalls the adoption of Christianity by the Samoan people. Furthermore, Naomi’s declaration of faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi when she decides to return to Israel with her (Ruth 1: 16-17) makes this a story of female solidarity which resonates with the long-running friendship of the girls.

The White Sunday performance ends with the girls performing a rock’n’roll version of the children’s Bible song “One, Two, Three, The Devil’s After Me”, seeding the group they will form a few years later. The band’s repertoire reflects the influence of White Sunday evening shows, performed by young adults. As Simpson observes “Some of the music [in the evening shows] is closely related to the music heard in evangelical churches in the US and invokes a modern R & B aesthetic”(144). In reviewing Angels Walker notes that the actors are all “consummate musicians”. Their soulful rendering of tunes such as African-American Lauryn Hill’s “His Eye is on the Sparrow” enhances the performative energy of the play, like the evangelical music in Samoan churches, fuelling the spiritual dimension of the performance.

One of the girls, Sing, says, “I wish we could do White Sunday forever”(Muagututi’a and Vaele 36). Eventually, however, she has to choose between religion and a musical career. After the Pastor discovers the Angels singing in a nightclub, Sing is badly beaten by her father as a punishment and decides to re-dedicate her life to God. The consequences of Sing’s decision are revealed in a farewell scene between she and Stevie, who moves to Australia to become a professional musician:

Sing: I know you’re disappointed.

Stevie: Music’s my life, just as God is yours. Sing: Yes, but he could be your life too.

Stevie: I’ve still got him in my life. I just don’t agree with some of the stuff he asks of us. Anyway I always end up backsliding.

Sing: Jesus died for our sins, so we could be forgiven. The one that will forgive will have Jesus in her life.

Stevie: I can forgive, I just can’t forget. We were really good. I’ll never forget that. (63)

This scene demonstrates the competing pressures of religion and performance. For Sing, a full commitment to her spiritual beliefs conflicts with the pleasures of performing. Stevie regrets that the potential of the band will never be realised due to Sing’s decision to leave. In the conflict between Sing and Stevie, the play stages an argument that a performing arts career is not compatible with a spiritual commitment.

In Angels, Sing positively represents the continuity of religious belief in a younger generation of Samoans even as the play acknowledges the hierarchical and gender implication of the church’s power. Stevie represents the competing urge to break away, to forge an independent identity and to pursue performance for its aesthetic and secular value rather than as an expression of religious belief.


In contrast to the focus on Samoan Christian identity in New Zealand in Angels, John Kneubuhl’s Think of a Garden (1992) dramatises the complex relationships between Christian and pre-Christian beliefs in Samoa itself. Born in American Samoa, Kneubuhl (1920-1992) trained as a scriptwriter in the USA and worked for many years in Hollywood. Think of a Garden was first performed in Samoa in 1992 (Johnson 258), and subsequent productions of the play in Auckland (1993) and Wellington (1995) were highly influential in the development of New Zealand’s Pasifika theatre.

Think of a Garden is an autobiographical work reflecting Kneubuhl’s upbringing in a mixed-race family in Samoa in the 1920s. Kneubuhl is represented in the play by two actors, a nine-year old boy (David) and his adult persona, identified as “The Writer”. The Writer acts as a narrator while the story unfolds. David has an American father, Frank, and an afakasi (mixed-race) mother, Lu’isa, the granddaughter of an English missionary and a chiefly Samoan woman. The fictional story interconnects with the real events of Samoan history, specifically the death of Tupua Tamasese Leolofi III, the leader of the Mau independence movement, who was shot and killed by New Zealand police in 1929 during a peaceful protest. This traumatic event leads to the breakdown of the family, with David being sent off to school in New Zealand while his father and uncle fruitlessly attempt to seek justice for Tamasese’s death (Samoan independence was finally achieved in 1962).

The political themes of Think of a Garden have been thoroughly analysed elsewhere,9 so in this paper I concentrate on the spiritual dimensions of the play. Both Lu’isa and David represent an inner conflict between indigenous and Christian beliefs. Lu’isa staunchly clings to her Christian beliefs, yet when she learns of Tamasese’s death she attempts to express her grief by slashing her face with a broken bottle, a pre-Christian practice regarded as “the ultimate gift of love” (47). In many ways she reflects Tui Atua’s observation that Christian Samoans refuse “to entertain the thought that in their ancient religious beliefs and practices maybe our forebears had something useful and profound for our modern religious lives” (13). Tensions between Lu’isa and David’s Catholic teacher Brother Patrick results in Lu’isa withdrawing David from the Marist school to have private tuition with a protestant minister. Lu’isa claims spiritual authority over Patrick, reminding him that she is a descendant of Christian missionaries who “virtually Christianized the South Seas” (62). She dismisses the Catholic “obsession with Satan and possession and speaking with Saints! It’s medieval!” (28). The conflict between Catholic and Protestant values reflects Va’ai’s observation: “When European missionaries first introduced Christianity to Samoa, the divisions and sectarian rivalries from Europe came with them” (78).

Early in the play, David is presented by Brother Patrick as a diligent Christian child, having translated the nativity story into Latin (28). As the narrative progresses, however, he develops a relationship with a spirit named Veni, the ghost of a deceased villager. David becomes “possessed” by this relationship with the spirit world, as described by Lilo: “His eyes rolled back in his head, his body twitched, out of control, and he whimpered – like a little animal” (68). Soon after, he appears naked but for a tapa cloth lavalava and has attempted to paint his skin brown (79). Thus the play creates a portrait of spiritual confusion in an afakasi child. Before David leaves to go to boarding school in New Zealand, he is left alone to say goodbye to Veni. But the ghost does not appear, leaving the boy distraught. His connection with his Samoan spirits seems to be lost, and as he leaves his home, the audience hears a Samoan hymn, reinforcing the sense that the Christian world-view now dominates David’s world.

The afakasi characters David and Lu’isa in Think of a Garden powerfully evoke the spiritual contradictions in a colonised people. The deep sense of unease in Veni’s possession of David parallels the political unease in the play surrounding the death of Tamasese and the struggle for independence.


Samoan theatre has become a unique hybrid of Western theatrical conventions and Pasifika performative traditions, reflecting the blending of ancient spiritual beliefs and Christian doctrine in Samoan religion. It calls upon the ancient practices of ritual comedy from throughout the Pacific, re-purposing their subversive and celebratory functions for the postcolonial era. Aesthetic practices are inflected with the spirits of fale aitu and the performance disciplines of White Sunday. The portrait of a corrupt minister in Romeo and Tusi shows the satirical function of fale aitu remains potent and relevant in New Zealand, yet the pastor in Angels wields his patriarchal power to cut short the promising career of a girl band, whose very existence is due to the church’s encouragement of performance skills and discipline. While Angels stages the conflict between Christian religious values and artistic expression, Think of a Garden invokes the spiritual and corporeal confusion of Lu’isa and David in a psychological battle to reconcile the conflicting forces of a polytheistic culture with the demands of a Christian missionary culture. The fale aitu principle that actors take on the status of spirits or ghosts in performance, gives them a degree of power that counteracts other powerful forces in the hierarchical Samoan culture. This confluence of spiritual power with performance is part of the appeal of Pasifika theatre in an increasingly secular New Zealand. Angels dramatises the real difficulties that young Samoan artists have faced in asserting their independence of repressive religious doctrines, yet it is this very struggle that gives the plays such emotional force, even when they are presented as broadly comic parody. This combination of spiritual agency and satirical humour recalls Anita Hammer’s point that in many non-Western societies “play and prayer belong together”(37). The distinctive voices of Pasifika theatre artists are arguably “possessed” by the spirit of their aitu, for whom there was no separation between spirituality and performance.


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