“Kingdom of Lote” from a Samoan perspective

8 06 2011

I stepped off the plane in Auckland, was greeted at the airport by my girl Ema Tavola and promptly told that that night we would be watching a Tongan play called Kingdom of Lote. I was mildly intrigued. Like most Samoans, and having grown up in Hawaii, I can honestly say that I have “lots of Tongan friends” and consider myself quite fluent in the diverse PI world, but a play about Tongans? This was something completely new. I was prepared for the familiar Tongan references: meals featuring some form of domesticated quadruped (usually horse, possibly dog, but not cat), an unnatural obsession with rock wall-ing, infinite kava circles, and more than a few gold teeth. I was not disappointed. Add to that, though, a cast of unforgettable characters, a beautiful score, the most spatially intimate theatrical experience I’ve ever had, and you have Kingdom of Lote – the poignant story of Lote, the head of her small kingdom, which includes her brother Krak and teenage twins, Saia and Sela – a family balancing the demands of Tonga, and Tongan-ness, in current day Aotearoa.

Now, remember, I’m Samoan, so my idea of a great night out has never included taking in a bit of Tongan theater. That said, though, even I could not escape the charm and subtle brilliance that Kingdom of Lote, at its very core, is.

Much of the dialogue is delivered in Tongan, my favorite being the scene where Lote has a conversation with a nosey neighbor—in rapid-fire Tongan and at the top of their lungs. The unapologetic use of the Tongan language, and by extension the inclusion of traditional Tongan songs, works on so many levels: it identifies the primary audience, privileging those lucky enough to understand and speak Tongan. And it places that experience within the context of Pacific life so that someone like me, who may not understand Tongan, can easily identify with it because I’ve had nosey neighbors as well (except mine are mostly Samoan).

Woven amidst the drama of Saia’s burgeoning rugby career, Sela’s unsolicited political pontifications and Krak lamenting on wasted opportunities, is what I thought was the soul of this story: one woman’s drive to keep her family together. Lote represents the Pacific Everywoman, as comfortable in the kitchen as she is on the rugby sideline, as driven as she is humble, as skilled at picking up the pieces as she is at throwing down.

Kingdom of Lote is a testament to the unbreakable spirit of family, shared through the voices, lives and songs of Tongans, but it is also, to its credit, a Pacific tale. For me, Uncle Krak might be Uncle Junior, touchdowns replace tries, and I’ll take turkey tail over horse any day, but when it’s all said and done, these are simply details. The power in this story is that it brings us back to family, whether you call it aiga, famili, or whanau, and that’s something we all identify with.

Dionne Fonoti
May 2011

Dionne Fonoti was they keynote speaker at the Curating Pacific Art Forum, an event in the Pacific Arts Summit delivered in partnership with AUT University on Saturday 21 May. Fonoti is a Samoan academic and film maker based in Apia.

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