I stand face to face with the sandstone façade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales with my pocket-sized Tongan fan in one hand and mobile phone in the other and I listen to the sweet-sounding cadence of lilting melodies through the building’s large timber doors. When I step inside, the harmonies of a Tokelauan chorus echo through the white hallways of the gallery. I speak Tongan, so I don’t understand the lyrics of the song, but the euphonious acapella immediately gives rise to a guttural wave of emotions, because I recognise that this is a call from home.
‘Kalaga atu’ means “to call” in Gagana Tokelau and this production is performed by an all Pasifika cast and directed and written by Emele Ugavule, a multidisciplinary storyteller and educator of Fijian and Tokelauan decent. ‘Kalaga atu’ is more than a performance. For me, it was an immersive and soul stirring journey across the waterways of Oceania. It transcends time, space and place and follows the lives of five siblings who call on the wisdom of their ancestors for guidance and light.
A black in-the-round stage blanketed by woven pandanus fine mats is centered in the central court of the gallery. The mats are symbolic of the worlds, time, complex stories and ancestral languages that are woven together to create this empowering production. The audience is seated in an intimate circle around the stage mirroring the vā that exists between the Indigenous communities of Oceania and their kinship to one another and the universe. With this set up, the five siblings, performed by Emele Ugavule, Tommy Misa, Jessica Paraha, Malia Letoafa and Luke Currie-Richardson, offer a unique experience for the audience to engage emotionally with stories of pain, happiness, strength, hope, resilience, history and ancestral ways of living, being and becoming.
Stories reminiscent of Bubu (Grandmother/ Grandparent), siblings and ancestors from the beginning of the Dream Time in ‘Kalaga Atu,’ reminds me of my own family and the intergenerational connections that have always existed and will continue to exist as passages to share ancestral knowledge, values, memories and culture and traditions across Tonga, Oceania and the diaspora.
The character played by Jessica Paraha captures the oceanic ancestral imagining of the region and Indigenous relationships to the ocean as a body they are “forever in service to…” and their “everlasting bond to one another. Tied together, woven together.” Epeli Hau’ofa wrote about the importance of the ocean to Pacific Islanders and reconceptualised the imperialist view of the Pacific Islands as separate and isolated entities. In his work, the ocean does not restrict the people of Oceania, rather it serves as a pathway or passage between island nations for cultural and economic exchange. Paraha’s character continues to describe how the ocean is a channel for “Twists of tongue that echoes one another tahi, rua, toru, wha” and come “twisting us back together.”
My family and I do not live in our homeland of Tonga. We live in Australia with family across the diaspora and Oceania. Stories reminiscent of Bubu (Grandmother/ Grandparent), siblings and ancestors from the beginning of the Dream Time in ‘Kalaga Atu,’ reminds me of my own family and the intergenerational connections that have always existed and will continue to exist as passages to share ancestral knowledge, values, memories and culture and traditions across Tonga, Oceania and the diaspora.
Malia’s Letoafa’s character reminds us of the resilience and strength of the people of Oceania especially after the arrival of Europeans colonisers who invaded many nations across Oceania and brought with them violence, diseases and attacks on cultural traditions and practices. She says, “Long line I come from. We come from. Generations that tried to stop us …Portuguese folks, American, folks, British folks, deceased folks, they tried to stop us. They tried to distort us. Try to rip Mana out of our tongue…We will always be here.”
Kalaga Atu was a powerful and captivating performance that all Pasifika peoples are called to attend. Tickets are available on The Art Gallery of NSW website. Shows are available on Friday 21st January from 7pm to 8.45pm and Saturday 22nd January from 7pm to 8.45pm. The mighty words of Bala resonated with me as I drove home last night. “I come from storytellers, dream brothers, optimists, scientists, healers and feelers.”
The mighty words of Bala resonated with me as I drove home last night. “I come from storytellers, dream brothers, optimists, scientists, healers and feelers.”