Sibling Rivalry: A Darkly Comic Exploration of the Fa’a Sāmoa

By Megan Bedford

Cast of O le Pepelo. Credit: Abhi Chinniah
Cast of O le Pepelo. Credit: Abhi Chinniah
Auckland Theatre Company’s new play tells the story of a Samoan family in turmoil as each member considers their commitment to tradition, leadership and legacy.

The prospect of losing its leader can often shake the foundations of a family – not only in grief but as its members gather, long-held beliefs, hurts and slights also have a way of coming to the surface.

Exploring these ideas in the context of Faʻa Sāmoa (the Samoan way, or traditional Samoan lifestyle) is Auckland Theatre Company’s season of O le Pepelo, le Gaoi, ma le Pala’ai | The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward by Natano Keni and Sarita So.

Set in Samoa’s not-so-distant past, Pili Sā Tauilevā is a proud Ali’i (chief) who has devoted his life to the sacred fa’a sāmoa tradition of service.

When he suddenly falls gravely ill and refuses to name a successor, his daughter and son become rivals for the title.

It’s a beautifully layered piece that not only touches on the distinct personalities in one family, but wider commentary on the growing divide between those who have chosen to stay in Samoa and those who have chosen to leave. Honouring tradition and moving forward can be weighted differently for each person, and finding a balance can sometimes seem impossible.

As part of the 2024 Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki Auckland Arts Festival, Keni directs a cast of nine Pasifika actors. With a performance encompassing two languages, along with elements of movement and song, it’s a fulfilling and deeply moving theatrical experience.

In the pivotal role of chief Pili Sā Tauilevā is Semu Filipo, who recently appeared on the big screen in Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins.

Ana Corbett plays the ambitious daughter of a Samoan chief
Ana Corbett plays the ambitious daughter of a Samoan chief in O le Pepelo, le Gaoi, ma le Pala’ai | The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward.

Theatre, film and TV actor and producer Ana Corbett steps into the role of Vailoloto Sā Tauilevā, his daughter. Having once been involved with a reading of the work during its development back in 2021, Corbett explains Keni and So had remembered her for the role of Vailoloto.

“She is a bit of a feisty character, she’s not very nice for most of it!” she says, chuckling about what that might mean, but concedes she loved the role regardless and was very keen to be involved.

“I was 35 weeks pregnant at that time, so all I really remember is how epic the play was!” she says of her first impression.

She says the story navigates how families embrace traditions, including members that have moved away from Samoa and come back, and whose way of thinking is the ‘best’ way. “The play is a collision of those ideas,” she says, explaining her character is sent to New Zealand to live on a kiwifruit farm her aunt owns.

“She works in recruitment, sourcing new workers from Samoa for the farm under the RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) Scheme. She returns to Samoa wanting to be considered to take over the family, be the next heir, but not having that experience growing up in Samoa, does she have a right to be considered?”

Also in the running is her brother, Matagi, who has lived with the family in Samoa the whole time. “In his mind, he absolutely is the next person to take over,” she says.

She says the underlying ideas will be familiar for many people. “When I first read it I thought, ‘this sounds like Succession’. The dad [in the play] is cheeky in the way he leads them on. He has private conversations with each of the kids, and his wife, and is kind of playing them all at the same time.”

Though there are heavier themes, she says there are moments in the balance of old and new that serve to raise a smile from the audience, including the way the creators use comedy to subtly touch on issues like the effects of colonisation. The clever production values of the play reimagine with lighting and set design how to present the idea of people in a house together, on different floors and separate rooms, in a modern way.

Along with elevating Pasifika stories to a mainstream theatre space, Corbett is excited the play is part of the Auckland Arts Festival. “There are going to be international festival directors there so it’s a wonderful opportunity to share it with New Zealand audiences, but also potentially, internationally as well.”


O le Pepelo, le Gaoi, ma le Pala’ai | The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward

Auckland Theatre Company

5-23 March, 2024



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