Pagali's Samoa on stage

Dave Armstrong enthuses about his work in the Octagon sun yesterday. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Dave Armstrong enthuses about his work in the Octagon sun yesterday. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Wellington playwright Dave Armstrong has fuzzy memories of his last trip to Dunedin.

"It was meant to be a nice, quiet visit down to see my Motor Camp play at the Fortune. But, afterwards, the cast dragged me out to every bar in Dunedin and I ended up sending an incomprehensible text home to my wife at 3am."

He has escaped the dog box and stoically returned to the scene of the crime to see his plays Rita and Douglas and Where We Once Belonged in this year's Otago Festival of the Arts.

The former, based on a series of letters between artist Rita Angus and composer Douglas Lilburn, finished its season at King's and Queen's last night.

Armstrong will attend the opening night of Where We Once Belonged at the Fortune tonight before heading back to Wellington tomorrow.

"It's great to see your play come alive on stage. It's the cool part of the job."

He started writing Where We Once Belonged on a beach in Apia, but its genesis was a lifetime ago.

"I grew up next door to a Pacific Island family and they were my second family. I've always loved the Samoan sense of humour and disposition," he said.

"Our culture has been so influenced by Maori and Pacific culture. People ask me how I can write about those characters when I'm not Pacific Islander, and I say 'How can you not?

'"Even though I'm a pagali, which is a Samoan word which means 'skybreaker', because the ships that brought the white men to Samoa were so big they broke the sky.

"Quite a bit of the play is about how Western society has inveigled its way into traditional cultures and stuffed them up. One of the lines in the play is: 'Every time we cook corned beef instead of coconut, or drink Coke instead of coconut milk, we're committing suicide'."

The former school teacher and television writer, who has written for programmes including Shortland Street and Bro'town, has been a full-time playwright for the past 12 years.

His plays King and Country, Le Sud, The Tutor and Motor Camp have all been performed in Dunedin.

However, he is particularly animated about his latest offering.

"It's very theatrical. Basically, we recreate an actual Samoan village, including a market in Apia and a public toilet and even a bus scene.

"It has been such an amazing cast to work with. Pacific Islanders don't see theatre as an intellectual exercise, but as a way to feel emotions and tell stories."

Where We Once Belonged opens at the Fortune Theatre at 7.30pm today and runs till Thursday.

-nigel.benson@odt.co.nz

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