It’s tempting to dub Victor Rodger the enfant terrible of New Zealand scriptwriting, though he may be a bit old for an enfant. At 43, he has lost none of the outrageous subversiveness that marked his acclaimed works Sons (1995), Ranterstantrum (2002) and My Name Is Gary Cooper (2007). These were abrasive plays that changed the face of Pasifika theatre, written in response to what he refers to as the “oogah-boogah shtick” of PI representation in film, television and on stage.
Sure, Pacific people have become more than just “blackground”, but “there are still things to get angry about”, he says with some passion.
Racism and race relations are Rodger’s triggers, but humour is a beat away. “I can never not be funny,” he says. He’s a complicated mix of playful blond (he wants to bring our interview forward to get to his Bodyjam class and chuckles at the prospect of doing his high kicks) and dark provocateur. A bit of a gypsy, he uses the portable gig of Shortland Street scripting and writers’ residencies to be Mr Polyglot, but always returns to his Ponsonby tribe or to be near his mum in Christchurch.
Soap operas seem a natural hangout – he’s hardly likely to diss the 12 years he’s written for Shortie; a trained thesp, he also acted on it – but theatre is home. It’s his heart work, about something he wants to say.
Hence Black Faggot, Rodger’s latest offering coming up for the Auckland Fringe and Pride festivals.
“I started this a few years ago after the ‘Enough is Enough’ Destiny Church march,” he explains, “because it was basically fathers and sons marching against the civil union bill. At the very, very least, one of those kids will be gay and feeling wretched about themselves as they grow up, so Black Faggot was a response to that.
“The reason I’m doing it now is that some of the opposition of our [PI] community is getting vocal [about the same-sex marriage bill], and I thought, ‘I am just going to finish it’, and the play goes on just before the bill goes to Parliament.”
The Fringe and Pride festivals are a happy union, too. “Ideally, it will be a gay Pacific Island [audience] because of what I’ve done in the play; it’s definitely inspired by [Toa Fraser’s] Bare in terms of loosely interconnected monologues. It’s really for them primarily to see that spectrum of gay Pacific Island life, which doesn’t really get out there. Even with Pacific Island theatre, I think fa’afafine characters often are the new Black Man in terms of theatre, like they are there for the funny laughs.”
Undeniably, coming out as a gay Pacific Island kid is easier today, says Rodger. “There’s a lot more acceptance. Last year, I went to a show by a group called Queens, who come out of Kelston Boys High and are all gay. I was sitting with mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents watching these kids and I just thought, ‘My gosh, this would never have happened 10, 20 years ago. This is great, all PI kids.’
“So you’ve got that on the one hand, where it’s a lot better, but you still have elements of the community getting their panties in a bunch about the thought of same-sex marriage.”
The spine of Black Faggot is made up of two characters: one, a Christian, doesn’t realise he is gay; another is out-there, unapologetically gay. And despite its provocative title, Rodger stresses it’s a comedy.
“It’s been interesting,” he says. “I could almost racially divide it in terms of the generally white reaction, ‘Oh, that’s very confronting, oh my gosh, this is going to be a searing drama in terms of poor little gay Pacific Islanders’ and then on the brown side, they are all going, ‘Hahaha, can’t wait to see it’.”
Remember, it’s the Fringe. “This is the loosest thing I’ve ever done.” All the stuff he could never write on Shorty. “The language is quite explicit, the situations are quite explicit, it’s filthy, it’s fun, but it’s also got a point to it. I hope.”
When he turned 40, Rodger became aware of “the sands in the timeglass running at a faster pace”. So he started writing faster. Last year, Palmerston North’s Centrepoint produced At the Wake.
“That was me imagining my Samoan father and Scottish grandmother in the same room. I thought they were going to hate it, as it is quite foul-mouthed, in-your-face, but Palmy lapped it up.”
In August, Auckland’s Silo is staging Protection, a co-commission with Christchurch’s Court. For the first time, he focuses on a white family – the overly protective father of a boy who may or may not have been abused in a situation reminiscent of the Christchurch Civic Creche case.
So much of his writing has concerned tortured father-son relationships (“The relationship with my father I’ve turned into a cottage industry”). This time he wanted to attempt a more positive father-son story, but “it actually hasn’t transpired like that.”
Growing up afakasi – the child of a Samoan and palagi – in “racist” Christchurch was no picnic. His hometown’s not his happy place – only Sons has been performed there – but he gets drawn back.
“You can’t not be moved by what’s happened to your friends and family and to your city. Particularly coming from the east side, which is where my loyalties lie. “The city’s always been very east-west but now it’s more pronounced; that’s the big thing I have taken away from the quakes. It’s a tale of two cities.”
He’s been writing a play about it, Aftershocks. “It starts off with a ‘f— Gerry Brownlee’ monologue from one of the characters, how he couldn’t fit on a chemical toilet. That kind of vibe.”
Another in progress, Can All Read and Write, is based on an incident two years ago “where some PI students from [Christchurch’s] St Thomas’s won an award, and the palagi guy presenting it said, ‘I assure you they could all read and write ho ho ho …’
“That really struck a chord with me as someone who came from Christchurch that, yes, things have changed, but not completely.”
BLACK FAGGOT, by Victor Rodger, Basement, Auckland, February 16-20, as part of Auckland Fringe and Auckland Pride Festival.