Vela Manusaute sees a pleasing symmetry in the latest production by Kila Kokonut Krew, the South Auckland-based theatre company of which he’s a founding member.
The Factory is about the late-20th-century migration of Pasifika people to New Zealand and their unheralded contribution to its economy, as well as what Manusaute regards as the betrayal of their aspirations.
“I’m a child of that searching for the promised land of milk and honey,” he says. “I was nine when we came here, enticed from the islands by tales of great opportunities, great jobs. But when we arrived it was a totally different story. I believe someone lied to us, in order for us to come here and provide cheap labour.”
Many of Manusaute’s relatives, including his parents, had to take manufacturing jobs when they arrived in the 1970s. He assumed that was where his future lay, too, before a six-month stint in a comb factory when he was 14 convinced him to finish his schooling and pursue other options.
Three decades later, Manusaute takes evident delight in the idea that, by creating a show about how the dream of a better life in Niu Sila proved to be a mirage, he’s finally in the process of fulfilling that dream.
When The Factory debuted in Mangere in mid-2011 – touted as New Zealand’s first professional Pasifika musical – it earned widespread acclaim for its heart, humour and sincere slickness. That unimpeachable source the Listener, for example, called it a “joyful triumph”.
Now, thanks to the support of the Auckland Arts Festival’s artistic director, Carla van Zon, the show is being restaged, realising a festival aim of giving existing local works the chance to develop further and extend their lifespan.
At van Zon’s urging, part of The Factory’s development has involved “treating the production as a clean slate and holding open auditions”, says Anapela Polataivao, who like Manusaute is co-director of the show and one of Kila Kokonut Krew’s five company directors (the others are Stacey Leilua, Aleni Tufuga and Glen Jackson).
“That was a challenge for us,” she admits, “because we’ve always just had to answer to ourselves, so to have the people who hold the actual purse strings saying, ‘Hey, how about …’
“But it’s all about strengthening the work. It’s too easy to become attached to what you’ve created in your little bubble and to lose sight of the fact it can grow even more if you’re brave about it and say, ‘Yes, okay, let’s see who else is out there.’
“Now, it’s very exciting, the wealth of talent we have at our disposal. It’s a real treat and we feel very spoilt. But at the same time The Factory deserves that respect and care. It’s our history, it’s where we’re at, it’s where we’re going.”
Funding from the festival has meant being able to take on celebrated singer/songwriter Tama Waipara as musical director, a move that after only a couple of days’ rehearsal has already lifted the calibre of singing.
“It’s got an international level to it now,” says Manusaute excitedly. “I can see myself sitting somewhere else overseas with it. I’m not trying to be cocky or anything, but hearing them sing, that’s the kind of vision I have for it.”
It has also resulted in pulling together a larger, mainly new cast that includes seasoned musical performer Ross Girven, whose presence as the eponymous plant’s owner is an indication of how the show’s content, as well as its quality, has evolved.
Whereas the first iteration unfolded in the present and featured a factory run by a Pacific Islander exploiting his own people, The Factory 2.0 is set in the 1970s, during the infamous campaign of dawn raids that targeted suspected overstayers from the islands. The earlier era demands a Palagi owner for the sake of historical accuracy. It also means the material has become more pointed.
“Oh gosh, it’s much more politically powerful now,” says Manusaute, “but we don’t want to shove that down people’s throats. It’s a celebration, a tribute to our Pacific people who came to serve on New Zealand’s factory floors.”
The Factory also acts as a measure of how far the Kila Kokonut Krew has come since it was established in 2002 to create work for Pasifika performers.
“Creatively, we’re in a great place,” says Manusaute, noting that at the same time as rehearsing the stage show, the company is developing a contemporary, web-based Factory series. “But it took us a long time to get here. It was 10 years ago that we started throwing together ideas in a garage.”
“We’re still there,” points out Polataivao with a laugh, “still in that garage.”“Yeah,” says Manusaute with a grin, “but now we’re in our garage with better dreams.”
THE FACTORY, Q Theatre, Auckland, March 6-11, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.