Onstage review: The White Guitar – a show of strength and vulnerability

The White Guitar: shining light into the darkness

The White Guitar: shining light into the darkness

“I represent the thousand souls that never made it this far,” Malo Luafutu (best known as Scribe) explained at the opening of the 2016 season of The White Guitar at Hannah Playhouse last night. Directed by Nina Nawalowalo and Jim Moriarty and presented by The Conch and Tourmakers, The White Guitar is a living history told by Scribe, his father (Fa’amoana John Luafutu) and brother (Matthias Luafutu). The show weaves the stories of the Luafutu family and their journeys between Samoa and New Zealand; real and raw rites of passage through love, hardship and darkness towards redemption. It’s an important and powerful play in which the central metaphor – the white kikala – symbolises its theme of salvation through truth and music.

Psychologists say that when we make ourselves vulnerable, we fast-track our relationships towards deeper levels of understanding and connection. This is what The White Guitar achieves.  Inviting the audience into their experiences, the Luafutu men share their truths with honesty and integrity. The play constructs a space where demons are looked in the eye – personal battles with violence, addiction, prison and gangs are exposed and owned. This creates a territory that is intimate and brave, gaining strength through veritas. Above all, The White Guitar is memorable for its humanity.

An epic narrative, The White Guitar is dramatised through spoken word, rap, guitar riffs, song, beat boxing, physicality and projections on fabric. It delves, unflinchingly, into memories from the Samoan villages of Satalo and Poutasi to the mean streets of Auckland and Christchurch in the 80s and 90s through to the present day.

The three artists overlap their recounts, as we follow Fa’amoana Luafutu’s struggles, then those of his sons, told by Malo and Matthias. At the side of the stage, self-taught musician Fa’amoana underscores the story on a white electric guitar. But this is not merely a masculine story. Women in the play are a staunch presence – the regal matriarch Nana Pepe (Tupe Lualua) who promises “one day, God will bring you a white guitar of your own”; the goddess-like Caroline (Filoi Vailaau) who Fa’amoana falls for.

The White Guitar is dynamic and self-reflexive. The significance of the seminal plays Verbatim and Michael James Mania (along with their writer/directors) get a mention, as well as Matthias’ training at Toi Whakaari – NZ Drama School. Another element which makes the show feel like it is bursting at the seams, telling a story that can’t be contained by a stage were the black and white photographs lining the walls as we made our way up the stairs to the theatre. Artworks by Saint Andrew Matautia, the exhibition examines the proceedings of a matai ceremony and everyday life on fa’a Samoa.

“Like every great story, it starts with a dream,” Scribe says. A dream to come to New Zealand. The Luafutu parents, with visions of new opportunities – “We would be educated… lawyers, All Blacks” – bring their family to Auckland for a better life. The education that followed was tough. With the world of Samoa “condensed like a bubble” within the walls of Grey Lynn’s 21 Browning St, Fa’amoana Luafutu’s childhood (as told in his book, A boy called broke) soon becomes a story of lost innocence. A paper dart zipping out from behind the five panels of cloth demarcating the set signals his entry to the world of Grey Lynn School. This is a place of ‘Deeds Not Words’, where difference is ridiculed and Fa’amoana is given his new name, John. He and a Niuean newcomer are made to go around singing for each class “like a couple of performing monkeys”. Sundays become punctuated with incidents of “stealing milk bottles, raiding fruit trees” with the cousins. Fa’amoana and his cousin take some bikes for a joyride, resulting in a beating that is conveyed through looming shadows on the fabric panels. The haunting justification for physical abuse is repeated later and inscribed across the screens: “I only hit you because I love you.” These words, heard and written over and over demonstrate the cycle of violence and the damage these patterns can cause within families and society as a whole.

“Six months later, Dad started a new school.” Fa’amoana John’s education is continued in 1960s Ponsonby, where he gets in a fight and loses 70% of his vision. He and a mate run away, and he ends up in borstal. The cloths morph into the bars of incarceration, where further horror awaits. “He’s twelve when he goes in, twenty one when he gets out.” The irony of the lyrics that win John a talent quest add a layered resonance to these scenes: “And the young ones, shouldn’t be afraid…” It’s sad, and infuriating, that so many of our young people are still living in fear. Let down by their carers, and by the state. In the week of the Moko Rangitoheriri verdict, The White Guitar’s new season seems timely.

At fifteen, John is charged for arson “and the same shit goes down again”. His story continues in Christchurch, where Mr Asia and white power are on the rise. When he meets Caroline, love re-enters his life. But the loss of his father to cancer sends him into a grief-stricken spin that ends in jail. He’s imprisoned from 1978 – 82. “When he got locked up, we all got locked up.” Scribe is born three months after this father’s incarceration, and is four by the time he is released. “When Dad got let out, music fills our house again.”

The sons’ stories are also tinged with pain; prisons real and self-imposed as they grow up in Christchurch during the 1980s. The sins of the father become a legacy: “Dad says I look dangerous. That makes me feel good.”  Malo gets into making music, Matthias gets into drama school and along the way they both also get into a lot of trouble. “Try not to be like your father… I’m disowning you Malo – go. Love you son – you stay clean and sober.” It is the mothers who will help them find their way. And later, the 2011 Canterbury earthquake.

Lyrical in all senses, the play is laced with music throughout. From the Samoan songs on grandmother’s beloved white guitar at the start to Hendrix, hip hop and church hymns, every sequence is enriched with careful sound design. And in many ways it is music that shapes the hope imbued in the resolution. Through creativity and catharsis, The White Guitar sends a message of strength and healing. As the audience rose for a standing ovation, it was clear we’d been lucky to share in something special and rare.

  • Annabel Wilson




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