Review: A Boy Called Piano – offering voices to the voiceless

Erin Harrington reviews A Boy Called Piano, presented by The Conch and directed by Nina Nawalowalo, at The Piano: Centre for Music and the Arts / Pīpīwharauroa: Kui-kui whitiwhiti ora, Friday 21 October 2022.

The Conch’s stage production of A Boy Called Piano begins with a voiceover from co-creator Fa’amoana John Luafutu, accompanied by swirling underwater footage from the recent documentary of the same title: “We all begin in innocence … they took that innocence. The baby you buried deep inside is a hurt baby. And sometimes, when you find yourself in situations, you wake the baby up and it starts to scream”. This emotional production offers one story among the many thousands of stories of young people who became wards of the state, no longer belonging to their families but the government. With strength and courage it explores the intergenerational impact of the sexual, psychological and physical abuse many suffered under this ‘care’.

The show was staged in development in October 2019 at BATS in Wellington, but further performance was upended by the pandemic. The project has since taken a number of forms: a lauded 60-minute documentary, premiering at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival; an hour-long audio adaptation for RNZ; and now the ‘original’ 80-minute work, staged and toured nationally. It also calls back to The Conch’s extraordinary production of The White Guitar, also about the experiences of the Luafutu Aiga, which played here as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival in 2015 (and which was the best thing I saw that year). The overall project is a little like a prism, where each way you tilt it you get a slightly different view, each taking advantage of the formal and emotional qualities of different media.  It’s an effective way of approaching something so difficult.

This production is directed by Nina Nawalowalo and cowritten by Luafutu and Tom McCrory, drawing from Luafutu’s experiences. It dramatises at the experiences of three young boys, two Māori and one Samoan, and occasionally flashes forward as the characters, now adults, attempt to tell their stories as part of ongoing inquiries into historic abuse. When we start it’s 1963: Wheels (Rob Ringiao-Lloyd), Piwi (Aaron McGregor), and Piano (Matthias Luafutu) meet in a cell at the Family Court before being sent to the notorious Ōwairaka Boys’ Home. The environment is cruel, racist and dangerous, and their friendship sustains them. The performers move in and out of boxes of light that act as cells, beds, and spotlights. Stylised imagery from the documentary is projected onto three long panels of white gauze. These also act as barriers, set pieces, and windows to the past, as Piano recalls with love his traditional upbringing in Samoa, and his relationship with his grandfather (Ole Maiava).

Most of the performance offers a combination of scene-work and direct address, the content of which also draws from verbatim testimony from Elizabeth Stanley’s 2016 book The Road to Hell: State Violence Against Children in Postwar New Zealand. The actors’ performances are intense and focused.  They are men playing 11-year-old boys trying their best to be men as they suffer through their first year the home. The physical, sexual and psychological abuse meted out by staff – also played by the trio – in turn makes other boys abusers themselves. There are rare moments of camaraderie and joy, like bursts of sunshine, but they are shortlived. The three boys, whose delinquency is effectively manufactured, become broken men in the present day. Their trauma and their fury manifests in the performers’ body language and ragged voices. High contrast lighting carves lines between light and shadow as the men tell their stories in the unfriendly institutional setting of the court, to people – Pākehā, Palagi – who still won’t pronounce their birth names correctly. As a work it’s interested in experience, memory and declaration, in pain and shame, not subtlety. And yet, it is hopeful.

Throughout, they are accompanied by Mark Vanilau, seated at a grand piano with his back to us. Piano is named for his mother’s love for the piano – he talks of hearing it first in the womb – and the music becomes a connection the past and an expression of maternal love. Vanilau’s expressive and responsive accompaniment takes us through song and lullaby – notably Hine E Hine – as well as more abstract expressions of pain and violence. It’s a highlight of the production.

This is a curious show though – more a stylised, theatrical, subjective act of testimony, often (deliberately?) on the nose, than a perfectly-constructed piece of narrative theatre. I am not sure it should be judged as a ‘play’ per se, but more performance as activism, for social change. There are moments of powerful visual and theatrical metaphor, though, and for me these are by far the strongest and most effective aspects of the show.

Water is a running theme. Water is a place of freedom, of suffocation; it’s the comfort of the womb; it’s the moana; it hurts, and it cleanses. In one affecting scene, Wheels describes learning to swim in Rotorua by diving after pennies that had been thrown into the water by tourists. He is overlaid with black and white archival footage of boys bobbing in the water, and while it’s a playful memory, Wheels is aware of the way he and other young Māori are othered, becoming performers for this (white) tourist gaze. It gestures to how those offering testimony come to be on display – and in some cases to be infantilised or accused of money grubbing.

And then there’s the presence and threat of bureaucracy. In another notable moment, the tearing and bunching of sheets of A4 paper becomes an excruciating expression of a violent act that still can’t be looked at head on. I recognise the emotional and political impact of the more didactic elements of the show, but I did wish for more these explorations of theatrical lyricism, and that the shape of the play was more consistent.

Part of the show’s idiosyncrasy is that it has a beginning, a middle and no end, perhaps because thus far there is no end.  There is a powerful resonance here, in terms of timing. On the same day I see this production, The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care finishes the run of public hearings relating to Crown- and faith-based organisations that started in right back October 2019 – barely a month before A Boy Called Piano staged its development season at BATS in Wellington. (The show itself was in development in 2017, when the then-National-led government was refusing to offer an apology to survivors). The scope of the inquiry was 1950-1999, and Stuff reports this morning that the hearings have “spanned 133 days, taking four years to complete and amassing 1,087 million documents”. This is still just a snapshot of the rotten layer of abuse, neglect, harm and cruelty that lies just beneath the surface of our country – a country that might, in another breath, congratulate itself on its casual and friendly attitude to life, on its interest in foregrounding ‘kindness’.  

A key victory is that A Boy Called Piano offers an important new model for artistic collaboration and production. The project has developed into a series of works that have come to use a collection of artistic storytelling forms to explore the awful fog of trauma and institutional and structural violence, indicating how the damage of the past bleeds through the present, offering a more human(e) accompaniment to formal legal deposition. Film and audio have their own strengths, but in this instance live performance is a potent medium as it holds us in the moment with the performers, creating a collective experience. I can feel the audience tense and move around me, flinching and sighing at certain moments. There are moments of laughter. Many get to their feet at the end. The work’s success is thus in its emotional impact, in demonstrating the power of placing the mana of victims at the heart of restitution, and in empowering those who have been denied a voice to tell their own stories, in any way they want or need.

A Boy Called Piano is currently touring New Zealand. You can find dates and venues here.

You can learn more about the Royal Commission of Inquiry, and read the stories of people who were abused in state care in their own words, here.

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