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Saturday 11 April 2015

Review: Girl on a Corner

Posted in: Performance
By Lexie Matheson - 16th February 2015

Produced by Karin Williams for Multinesia Productions
Part of the Auckland Fringe Festival and Auckland Pride
Written by Victor Rodger
Directed by Anapela Polataivo and Vela Manusaute

Auckland has so many festivals over the summer that at times it’s hard to keep up.

‘Girl on a Corner’ sits in two camps and it’s great to see Auckland Fringe and Auckland Pride sharing shows if for no other reason than it gives broader coverage, and increased marketing opportunities, to cash-strapped arts organisations.

It’s not often that I get excited at the prospect of a new play by a Kiwi playwright but when I hear of a new work by Victor Rodger my heart certainly beats a little faster. Further, when I discover that the new work features graduates of the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts I can almost guarantee – at least to myself - that the experience will be one out of the box.

With this heightened sense of anticipation I went to the Basement with its history of staging Victor Rodger first nights (Ranterstantrum {2002}, My Name is Gary Cooper {2007}, Black Faggot {2013}) and a track record of excellence in enabling queer theatre so I was somewhat surprised to be mis-gendered three times at the box office even before I got in the door. Life happens, and I’m over my sense of surprise now, but considering the content of the play I was about to see, perhaps a bit more care might be exercised.

‘Girl on a Corner’ is based on the infamous encounter between super star Eddie Murphy and Shalimar, a soon to be deceased fa’afafine woman. ‘People’ described the incident as follows: ‘police pulled him over at 4:45 a.m. in the company of a male prostitute who looked a lot like a woman. This time, though, Murphy's fast talking wasn't an act, and the stakes were high. With a newly resurrected film career and a much-improved reputation for professionalism on the line, he was trying to convince reporters that his intentions were strictly honourable.’ If you want more, ask Ms Google, she’s got plenty.

Factually, that’s the end of the story, but Victor Rodger isn’t one to be daunted by a lack of specifics. In his excellent programme notes Rodger says of his narrative ‘the story is largely drawn from my own imagination but it is inspired by the research I did into Shalimar’s brief life. I like to think that if she could see the play she would accept it as the tribute it is intended to be: a tribute to someone that was more than just a prostitute, more than just a headline - someone who was more than just a girl on a corner.’

He’s achieved what he set out to do, with the critical help of an excellent cast and production team, beyond, I imagine, even his wildest expectations.

It’s worthy of note that this production embodies a wonderful clash of diverse underground cultures. From a theatrical perspective, first and foremost, Shalimar is transgender. More than that she is Samoan, fa’fafafine, with all the challenges that this entails for her, her family and friends. Her whanau is from Pago Pago in American Samoa but Shalimar has relocated to Tinseltown Los Angeles to seek her fortune and, if Rodger has it right, raise enough money for reassignment surgery.

It also needs to be said that Victor Rodger, whilst inextricably linked to all of these diverse communities, is writing for a New Zealand audience many of whom will simply have no in-depth understanding of what on earth he is writing about. It’s a super piece of work however you look at it, but for a queer audience it’s singularly profound. Transgender culture, and in particular street culture, has a language and style all of its own. The defence mechanisms, survival techniques and confrontational tools that enable us to evade the sticks and arrows of a conventional – read ‘straight’ - Eurocentric society are unique and most are learned at the business end of palangi society’s bureaucratic fist.

Politics (temporarily) over, now read on ….

‘Girl on a Corner’ is staged on the flat and up against the Basement brick back wall – no artifice, no bullshit and no way of escape. We are greeted by six actors leaning languidly against this wall and, whether we know it or not, the first of many confrontations is already taking place.

It’s an homogenous audience - what Laverne Cox would call a ‘swirl’ - and there is definitely an intense sense of excitement. The music is incredibly loud – ‘Fame’ at welding volume - and conversation, such as it is, needs to be louder creating a cacophony of sound that is, in itself, confronting. I remind myself that these people, audience and cast, are very special because they are single-handedly contributing to the queering of our Auckland audience, and this is important work.

There is an A Capella opening and the singing is amazing. Having, until now, been dressed in singlets the cast add a top to each ensemble and relationships are instantly established – father, mother, brother, schoolboy, lover and so on. It’s a barefoot show, with one exception, and right from the get-go Rodger hits the funny bone. There’s nothing more hilarious than Samoan humour and when you add queer campery to the mix the first few minutes are an absolute riot.

We meet Shalimar (Amanaki Prescott), a vision of fafa loveliness. She’s also fresh and totally in-your-face. Hers is a performance the like of which I have never seen. I’ve imagined it, as Rodger did, but here it is in the flesh. It honours her culture, her training as a performer and her gender difference. It’s quite simply magnificent.

At the heart of Rodger’s script are the facts around which he has woven a cloak of imagined alternatives, all generating from the mind of extraordinary mind of his Shalimar. There are alternative endings, imagined childhood scenes, chases and a funeral, the latter necessary because, less than year after her encounter with Murphy, Shalimar is found dead having ‘fallen’ from her roof of her apartment building. Despite Rodger suggesting a number of possibilities the truth remains: we simply don’t know what happened to her.

There are so many wonderful scenes.

Early on Shalimar imagines herself chased by Tony Tuitasi (Hans Masoe), the darling of her high school days. Her family, empathic but traditional, are beautifully played by Aleni Tufuga as her Dad, Joanna Toloa as her Mum and Gabriel Halatoa as her ever supportive brother David. Within the supporting cast there are some star turns with Sandy Vukalokalo as Uncle Sergio, Shalimar’s nemesis, the most memorable. Vukalokalo takes high camp into the stratosphere and manages to be both a figure of fun and one of nightmarish proportions.

The only persona to invade from the real world is the enigmatic Murphy, played with ultimate cool by Toufa Fisiinaua, and he remains inscrutable throughout. Fisiinaua’s Murphy is just that, HIS Murphy. There are slight hints of the character we have grown to know from ‘The Nutty Professor’ and ‘Beverley Hills Cop’ but the person embodied by Fisiinaua - and the one we take with us when we leave the theatre - is quite different. He is a manipulator, a predator, and in no way the Mister Nice Guy, or the villain, we rather want him to be.

Rodger has threaded vibrant images through his first-rate text that occur and reoccur, affecting us in different ways each time they pop up. There’s the Taj Mahal - The Temple of Love – a romantic ideal that epitomises Rodger’s Shalimar, but he’s also brutally honest and there’s no happy ending with Shalimar observing wryly that ‘no one built a tribute to me when I died’. Then there’s her self-chosen name – Shalimar - after the popular 1925, Jacques Guerlain perfume with its smoky aroma – a name which is smashed endlessly against a wall she cannot breach, that of her Samoan birth name Saoaumaga Atisone Kenneth Seiuli. No happy ending here either, and there are the rumours surrounding her death, horrible rumours, which seem to permeate every scene.

The ensemble playing is quite simply super: there’s the Mormon choir, the television pisstake (‘Magnum PI’, ‘Solid Gold’, ‘Dynasty’, ‘Charles Angels’), there are fabulous snatches of song that anchor the narrative firmly in its own time - ‘Express Yourself’ , ‘Party all the Time’, ‘You Sure Look Good Tonight’) - and Shalimar’s dreams, her dreams of reassignment surgery, but no one talks about her dreams, she reminds us, all they talk is about Eddie Murphy. There are the key lines that cleverly engender their own echoes – her Mother’s ‘don’t you get up to mischief in LA’ which is ricocheted back at us later with her prophetic ‘I think you should come home’.

All great humanist plays balance humour with tragedy and ‘Girl on a Corner’ is no different. Shalimar’s death is devastating for us and all the more so when, in true transgender fashion, she wryly dismisses it as simply ‘a waste of all those hormone pills.’

Dead, and taken back home to Pago Pago to her parents, brother and community, the horror continues with Shalimar dressed for her funeral in male clothing, a white mask placed on her severely mangled face. It’s heart breaking, and trebly so for the transgender in the audience as we have lost two sisters in recent weeks. In each case the girls were buried as sons by their families thereby denying them the right to be buried as the young women they actually were. Over my sobs – yes, I was devastated by this scene - I could hear the sobbing of others around me who, it seems, were clearly equally affected by the inhumane nature of these distressing rituals. Shalimar leaps to her parents defence with ‘they loved me for who I was’ but in the end they capitulate and dress her as a male so as not to offend the community. In this moment, the anger in the auditorium was palpable and I’d have been happy to go home then but there was more to come, a number of imagined alternative endings and alternative funerals – probably too many - that soften the conclusion. Shalimar, ever the pragmatist, does have the last word however, when she quietly announces ‘I’m still dead’.

The verdict is – from me, at least – that this is quite simply the best work I have seen for years, if not forever, and at the heart of it, surrounded by a magnificent ensemble, is the glorious Amanaki Prescott who is quite simply outstanding. It’s Shalimar’s play and Prescott unpacks her narrative with authenticity and power, drawing us in to spit us back out, making us laugh and ultimately breaking our hearts. It’s a towering performance in anyone’s terms but for those who identify as transgender it is especially empowering.

I have little doubt Victor Rodger will take his script away and make some changes. I certainly hope he does. It doesn’t need much, and with his particular genius and superb theatrical instincts I am hopeful he will make it the master work it thoroughly deserves to be.

Lexie Matheson - 16th February 2015

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