Wild Dogs Under My Skirt / Raymond Sagapolutele
“I want my legs as sharp as dogs’ teeth / wild dogs / wild Samoan dogs / the mangy kind that bite strangers.”
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (a nod to the malu tatau, traditional tattoos on a woman’s upper leg) directed by the award-winning Anapela Polataivao, has been handpicked to perform at the SoHo Playhouse in New York this coming January. The production, with an all-woman cast and crew, is one of three from New Zealand chosen to perform off-Broadway.
Wild Dogs centres on the colourful, and sometimes painful, collision of Fa’a Samoa ways and ‘Niu Sila’ attitudes. The cast perform selected poems from NZ-Samoan poet Tusiata Avia’s autobiographical poetry book of the same name. Once delivered solo by Avia around the world, Polataivao adapted Wild Dogs into a six-woman show, with specific poems assigned to powerful Samoan actresses who breathe life into the various characters from Avia’s upbringing as an afakasi (half-cast) woman.
The women of Wild Dogs sing from their bellies, bare their teeth sometimes and hold their culture close to their hearts always. They bend but do not break, experience trauma but ask for no pity. The women of Wild Dogs want nothing but open eyes and ears, ready to receive their stories.
Stacey Leilua, producer and actor, takes up Avia’s mantle in the production. Leilua, who has to transform from graceful dancer to woman filled with fury to obedient niece during the play, mentioned how draining each performance is. “Everything is left on the stage. I often find myself coming back to the dressing room and just sitting in my chair for a bit, staring at the wall in a daze.”
Nevertheless, working on Wild Dogs has been invaluable in every sense of the word. For Leilua, the opportunity came into her life exactly when she needed it.
“I had gone through pregnancy and a difficult labour, the beginning stages of motherhood and then solo motherhood,” she recounts. “I had been away from acting for about two years when Anapela asked if I wanted to be part of the show in 2016. For me, Wild Dogs will always mark that return to the stage, and my rediscovery of myself as a woman and mother who held so much more power than she believed at the time.”
Wild Dogs has also helped Leilua own her unique heritage. The afakasi experience is not an easy one, fraught with expectations, scrutiny and trying to find belonging.
“[It] was the first time I had portrayed an afakasi on stage, the first time I had been given that honour of performing those very specific life experiences,” Leilua says. “That is something that is so special to me. I love that we are able to be the mouthpieces for this fearless work.”
And fearless is probably the best way to describe it. Whether she is singing, crying or screaming with rage, Leilua encapsulates the shameless pride that runs like an undercurrent through the veins of Samoan women everywhere — even if she had to ease into it.
“I open the play with a siva Samoa, which previously I was very nervous to perform. I hadn’t done many in my life and being afakasi there was a personal sense of insecurity around it, of needing to ‘get it right,’” she explains.
“While teaching me the siva our choreographer, Mario Faumui, said to me that my ancestors dance with me, through me, and that has always stuck with me.”
It’s with the wisdom and alofa of generations of Samoan people, and her own loving support networks here in Niu Sila, that Leilua will depart these shores, with the rest of the Wild Dogs crew, to perform in the 2020 SoHo Playhouse showcase.
She’s positive that Wild Dogs will make an impact — the specific type of impact doesn’t really concern her.
“The stories in the show, the experiences that the characters speak of, these are all universal things. I have no doubt that anyone who comes to watch, from anywhere in the world, will be affected by something in the show.”
Leilua adds, “If anything, I love the fact that we are bringing Tusiata’s very unique voice to the New York stage.”
Unique, it is. Some audience members have been pleasantly surprised at the language and themes utilised in the production — which, in a traditional Samoan household, might not be received as well.
But on the stage? There’s no better place for blunt honesty. No tongue-biting or pussy-footing.
“Being able to connect with our ensemble, and with new audiences in a feminist sense is incredibly empowering,” Leilua remarks. “I love hearing from women after the show who are so moved by the work, and really understand the deep value of it.”
For more information about the showcase in New York, click here.Support Villainesse