Brown Crown is one of the two shows on as part of the Six Degrees Festival showing at BATS. It is the story of Masina (Falesafune Faafia-Maualaivao), a 21-year-old Samoan woman, who is trying to balance study, work, domestic work, and a social life while carrying her family’s expectations and her culture with her. Masina’s story is paralleled with the Samoan legend of Nafanua, played by Ahry Purcell, and her journey retrieving her uncle Ta’i’i (Kasi Valu) who had been captured by Chief Lilomaiava (John Ulu Va’a) of the eastern side of Samoa.
These two parallel stories are cleverly represented through the stage, designed by playwright and director Sarai Perenise-Ropeti, as large frames of varying size hang upstage. This divides the stage into a larger section towards the audience where there is simple set, and a smaller section between the frames and the wall of the Heyday Dome. When the audience sees Masina’s story unfold, these frames are filled with a projection of friends and family photos, or of a music festival logo. As we follow Nafunua’s story, these frames remain vacant, and the lights (designed by Matilde Furholm) display a red hue, giving an other-worldly quality. My friend mentions that she almost wishes the frames were even more transparent because we lose some of the actor’s facial expressions behind them. While this is true, this ultimately does not deter me. Oral stories that are passed down through generations are edited unconsciously, and each person who hears it will receive a slightly altered version. This staging is reflective of that, with certain audience members seeing more or less than others. Thus, this simple but highly effective staging demonstrates the cultural lineage and the reverberation of the past into the present. And this is something that gives Masina strength to unapologetically be who she is.
Brown Crown maintains a beautiful balance of comedy and emotional truth, delivered by a talented cast. Faafia-Maualaivao is the only actor to have a single speaking role. (The other three actors play ten roles between them.) Not only does this help the audience track her, but it also helps Faafia-Maualaivao build Masina’s emotional arch. The core of Masina’s story is not one of going against her family or culture. In fact, it is the opposite. Masina wants to stay true to her family and culture, and she wants to stay true to herself. Whether that is accompanying her gay best friend Castor (also played by Valu) to a music festival, or being openly bisexual. This all culminates and comes to a head when she performs a cultural dance for her grandmother’s memorial party towards the end of the show. Faafia-Maualaivao is fluid and confident in her movements, while still displaying the emotional fatigue on her face.
Purcell has three roles in the show and each one is wholly distinguishable from the other. As Nafunua she is a strong and confident warrior. As Moana, a masc music festival love interest for Masina, she’s a loud and proud bisexual. And as Alofa, Masina’s mother, she has a tired and kind demeanour. The playful chemistry between Purcell and Faafia-Maualaivao means that when they play mother and daughter, Masina teases her mother but ultimately respects her. Yet when they play potential love interests, it’s difficult to see the spark of romantic connection hidden amongst the jokes. These three roles are ultimately complimentary as we see towards the end of the play, each of them, including Alofa, are strong and true to themselves in their own way. This is what Masina is trying to emulate.
Castor is an opening night crowd favourite. Castor plays to Valu’s strengths, almost as though Castor was written for him. Valu is a natural performer, easily winning the crowd over with clown-like comedy, and he was also the first to break the fourth wall by having an audience member hold his phone for him while he films himself in Masina’s living room. Castor repeatedly insists Masina be open about her bisexuality, especially to her parents, seemingly unaware of the gender divisions between them that make him, including his queerness, more accepted. Yet, his persistence spurs Masina on.
Ulu Va’a plays the collective patriarchy, his roles stretching over three chiefs and Masina’s father, Fale. Again, each of these roles are wholly distinguishable from one another, not only in character but also physicality. As Chief Saveasi’uleo, an older man, he committed to the hunched over physicality and walking stick even when the lights turned black and the next scene had already started. Fale appears on stage over halfway through the play and unfortunately his sudden appearance is felt. This is an easy fix through the writing, as other characters can mention and reference him in a way that gives reverence. Then, when he does appear on stage, it’s less of a surprise to the audience. Despite this, Ulu Va’a still manages to give Fale some emotional depth through his expressive face.
As a directorial debut, Brown Crown is a stellar start. Perenise-Ropeti has found four relatively fresh faces to the Wellington theatre scene, and each of these four budding young actors will surely carve out an interesting and diverse career for themselves. The aforementioned bleeding of scenes together slightly calls to a wise directorial choice from Perenise-Ropeti as it is, again, reflective of the ongoing relationship between past and present. And the fight scenes in Brown Crown are actually beautifully crisp dances that brings goosebumps to the skin, not only through the movement but also through the traditional Samoan music.
Brown Crown is clear with what it wants to say: be who you are no matter who you are. Brown Crown delivers strong Pasifika theatre which will have you in stitches as well as sucker punch you in the feels. A standing ovation on opening night reflects the power of this show, one I feel more people should see, hence this review. But be quick about it as the season ends this Saturday.
Brown Crown, in many ways, is Sarai Perenise-Ropeti’s battle cry to let us know more powerful, women-led, Pasifika theatre is on the horizon. And, honey, I’m all for it.