Award-winning play takes NZ Fringe on Pacific waka voyage

Award-winning theatre show My Grandfather is a Canoe is about to take NZ Fringe audiences on a voyage around the Pacific.

On stage at the Hannah Playhouse on February 24-26, the show won five awards at the Dunedin and Auckland Fringe Festivals, also capturing the attention of sell-out audiences at Christchurch and Te Papa last year.

Playwright, performer and waka voyager Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i says the play takes the audience across the Pacific Islands through music, poetry, and song. The Christchurch-based creative says the most rewarding aspect is seeing the audience connect with the play.

“In Auckland, at the end of the show a group of Tokelauans danced and sang in response. Others stood to mihi and present lauga (Samoan oratory). We even had then Minister of Culture and Heritage Carmel Sepuloni mihi to us. Best of all is to see young children enjoying this imaginary waka journey.”

So far, the play has won: Auckland Fringe Touring Award, Spirit of the Fringe, Outstanding Overall Direction, Creative New Zealand’s Outstanding Pacific Performance, and the Auckland Live and Free Your Mind Award.

Based on Tafuna’i’s debut book of poetry of the same name, the voyaging canoe traverses Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Tuvalu and Tonga until it lands in Aotearoa. It explores love, loss, climate justice and the power of indigenous knowledge.

It includes the poems of Papua New Guinean Michael Dom and Faumuina’s son, Oliver, with an original music composition by director Marisiale Tunoka.

“We’ve always had strong family vibes with new musical director Siaosi Kei joined by younger brother Samson for the first time. My sister Selau Ifopo and her son Lopeti Sumner are in the cast, and backstage brother Mau’u Sio is bossing us around. We also have our lighting engineer Errol Head all the way from Dunedin.

“For the Wellington show, we are also picking up some local talent to share the stage with us.

In January, Tafuna’i was supported by NZ Fringe and Creative New Zealand Fatu Fund to further develop the play with dramaturg Tanya Muagututi’a, as well as Y-Not theatre founders Talia-Rae Mavaega and Jake Tupu.

My Grandfather is a Canoe was originally a collaboration with Dunedin-based creatives Inati Aotearoa, who helped devise the play at the start of 2022. On display during the show are the illustrations of Samoan artist Silivelio Fasi. The production is produced by Flying Geese Pro Ltd, which is owned by Tafuna’i. Special acknowledgement goes to Te Toki Voyaging Trust.