“Wild Dogs Under My Skirt,” a rhythmic, exuberant and startling work of theater that is the first of three New Zealand plays at Soho Playhouse this month, resembles Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” with some arresting differences. Like “Rainbow,” it features a fierce, lively cast of (six) women of color who sing, dance and recite poems about their lives. The poems in “Wild Dog Under My Skirt” are by New Zealand writer Tusiata Avia
What’s different is abundantly evident from the start, when Tusiata (portrayed by Stacey Leilua) opens a can of corned beef with a machete. She then licks the machete.
“The reason corned beef is so popular in the Islands,” a second woman says,” is because it so closely resembles the taste of human flesh….We are direct descendants of flesh-eaters.”
The “Islands” to which they refer make up the South Pacific nation of Samoa. Tusiata Avia is the daughter of a Palangi mother (a New Zealander of European descent) and a Samoan father. The history of Samoans in New Zealand has been complex and contentious. Samoans are a sizeable ethnic minority in New Zealand, descendants or immigrants from Samoa, which is 2,000 miles away, and didn’t get its independence from the more populous nation until 1962.
“Wild Dogs,” which originated as Avia’s solo show and has been performed as an ensemble piece since 2016 in New Zealand, seems to take for granted that the audience will understand the cultural and historical context of the 18 poems – not least because they’re laced with words from the Samoan language. (Below, I provide a glossary, which would be available in the program, but no program was being distributed at the Soho Playhouse.)
Yet, if “Wild Dogs” might send some scrambling to Google afterwards, there is enough that’s both clear and compelling to transcend the barriers of language and culture – or, more precisely, to connect with our own.
Manila, a child (portrayed by Ilaasaane Green, an adult), performs the poem “Fresh Off the Boat. ” She describes how her mother buys plastic flowers, her father beats her, “the plastic clock ticks over Jesus white face/tocks between Judas and John,” and the minister “looks like a cartoon drawing of a wild boar.” It ends:
“Our house doesn’t need a lawnmower
Our house doesn’t need a tin opener
Our house has 4 cousins sleeping in the garage
And a machete. “
– as vivid and succinct an illustration of the cultural disorientation of new immigrants as I’ve heard.
Three of the actresses take turns reciting verses from the poem “Three Reasons for Sleeping with a White Man”:
“I thought it would be like a border crossing….
“I thought he might rub off on me….
“I thought Eh, what the hell
and opened my legs
(not my eyes).”
In the title poem, which concludes the 90-minute show, proclaims:
I want my legs as sharp as dogs’ teeth –
wild Samoan dogs,
the mangy kind that bite strangers.
I want to frighten my lovers,
let them sit across from me
and whistle through their teeth.
There is a ferocity here, made more intense by the dramatic lighting and Leki Jackson Bourke’s percussive music, a boon throughout. But for all the references to cannibalism and fury in “Wild Dogs Under My Skirt,” we aren’t frightened; we’re inspired, and entertained.
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt
Written by Tusiata Avia, directed by Anapela Polata’ivao
Aunty Avai Joanna Mika-Toloa
Aunty Fale Petmal Petelo
Manila Ilasiaane Green
Tusiata Stacey Leilua
Dusky Maiden Vaimaila Carolyn Baker
Teine Sa Anapela Polata’ivao
Musician Leki Jackson Bourke
Choreography and Stage Manager: Mario Faumui
Set Design: Jane Hakaraia with artwork motifs by Tyler Vaeau
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
On stage through January 18, 2020
Pisupo: canned corned beef
Susu: breasts, milk
Palagi: white person
Afakasi: half-caste Samoan
Fine: traditional Samoan penalty (of food, woven mats and/or money) for breaking village rules of behaviour
Pulotu: Samoan underworld
Tattoo: Samoan women’s malu, from lower knee to upper thigh