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Reviewed by:
  • The Songmaker's Chair
  • Robert Sullivan
The Songmaker's Chair, a play by Albert Wendt. Directed by Dennis Carrol, Kumu Kahua Theatre, Honolulu, 1603- 15042006.

The family name of the characters in this play, Sa-Peseola, has been glossed as "a health giving song." It is synonymous with the term "songmaker" on different levels. Albert Wendt's 1991 novel Olahas a revealing quote: "I've often felt, with some dread, that instead of being the fisher I've been fished up, a creature born out of the imaginations of the creatures in the refuse heap; that I'm their captive taulaaitu/songmaker/shaman, the vehicle for their awakening" (9).

One gloss of the term "taulaaitu" is "anchor of the spirits." I have drawn on the quote from Olabecause it places the taulaaitu on the same spectrum as the songmaker and the shaman. Olais a very self-reflexive work and orients Polynesian culture within world cultures. The use of the star maps at the end of The Songmaker's Chairhints at its broader contexts as well.

The pese, or song, in this play comes through a variety of media, including the ghetto blaster that plays religious and popular Samoan songs in Samoan, and the live singing voices of the aiga (family) who voice the traditional song in Samoan as well as the Peseola-ized rap in English. That rap is a miniature of the play—one of the family sagas that has played out in a variety of Wendt texts, including the sagas of the Tauilopepe and Malo aigas in Leaves of the Banyan Tree(1979), of Faleasa Osovae's aiga in Pouliuli(1977), and of the Mautu aiga in The Mango's Kiss(2003), each set in Sämoa, and also in glimpses in Wendt's latest collections of poems, Photographs(1995) and The Book of the Black Star(2002), partly set in Ponsonby, Auckland. Sons for the Return Home(1973) is also a relevant work in regard to migration. One of the poems in Black Starreads, "We Will Read the Star Maps Our Ancestors forged across the heavens and learn the paths of one another and alofa [love, affection]." The paths of the individuals within the aiga are various, as in the drama: paths of struggle and of material success. The coherence brought to this play is created by its sense of family, which swirls around the parents, especially Malaga. (Because I don't believe in [End Page 651]New Criticism, I think you can also see influences on the strong roles for women in this play in Wendt's 1991 autobiographical story, "A Genealogy of Women" [reprinted in The Best of Albert Wendt's Short Stories,1999].)

A remarkable aspect of this play is the continuing unity of the Sa-Peseola aiga, even in a strange country that has "not treated them well." The two grandchildren have anchored themselves in their respect for Malaga and Peseola. The grandchildren might have been raised by them. They actively dislike their squabbling parents, Nofo and her Mäori husband Hone. The depictions of the two sons—Mau, a headmaster, and Frank, a young writer—perhaps draw on Wendt's own experience as a headmaster and writer. The family argument over the matai title (the title of the head of an extended family) echoes other Wendt works, including Leavesand Pouliuli.Lillo is a spirit figure; she has been hurt by the police and by the military. She carries wounds that are not fully explained in the play—they remind me of the wounds of colonialism in Wendt's 1976 essay "Towards a New Oceania" (reprinted in Paul Sharrad's Readings in Pacific Literature,1984), because the wounds are inflicted by agents of the state.

The family is the central character of the play. A major concern is the passing on of the family title to the oldest son Mau from Peseola. Another, of course, is the missing granddaughter. The Mäori character Hone is an orphan; in a sense he has been taken in by the Sa-Peseola aiga, while in the next generation a child is left out of the aiga...