Performance review: Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, Riverside Theatres

Poetry-based work about being a Samoan woman performed by a multi-skilled ensemble.
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Image is a group of Samoan women on a stage sitting on chairs in a semi circle and holding their fists together in front of them. In the middle stands another woman in a grey dress raising her arms triumphantly. The camera is at the back of the audience so some silhouetted heads are in the foreground.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt happened in a place that smelled like semen. Or that is what we were told within the unscrupulous and displaced ideas of belonging in Tusiata Avia’s poetry anthology. 

At Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, Samoan women became wild dogs. The transition was an undulating one and happened over the course of the performance in beats. There was a lot of room for belly-deep laughter and alofa (love), which was braided through every aspect of Aviata’s work. But there was also rage within the transnational wounds: how living in New Zealand has rippled out across the greater Pasifika community was made clear from the text.

This stage adaptation of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt crossed the threshold of traditional and religious conflicts, bringing to the fore the women who exist boldly at that juncture. 

The show opened with an ode to corned beef: a celebratory, whooping number that was glib but effective – the women claimed their fatness was a sign of their direct lineage as flesh eaters with a knowing jauntiness. This tongue-in-cheek rapport seemed to be built in with the audience, many of whom also hailed from Pasifika communities. 

Other remarks such as ‘My Samoan feet are size 11’ were heartfelt moans echoing the same sentiment: the white gaze that exists like an invisible string is omniscient, but without much power. This continued with an interlude of Aloha girls, twirling imaginary leis with white sharp smiles, ensnaring Palangi or foreign men by the names of Bruce or, more elusively, a Russian cowboy. These self-titled “Dusky Princess” personas were as much a costume as a survival tactic. And yet they were aware – only one of them could be Miss New Zealand. 

Every one of the six performers committed entirely. Some, skilled in the ukelele or traditional dance, seamlessly enmeshed aspects into the narrative sketches without taking any attention off the lead at the time. The ensemble flipped from storytellers to little girls to soothsayers with organic ease. The synergy between the women was a testament to the oratory interplay of Maori culture itself, pulling through the collective storytelling rites inherent within their shared heritage. 

With the addition of a percussionist and the running through line of an everyman’s dog named Bingo, the cast made quick work of bringing Avia’s text to life. The toilet apology from the Prime Minister over the 1929 Mau movement was yet another belched out physical joke at the expense of the white administration who gunned down nine peacefully protesting Samoans. 

Read: Exhibition review: Adrian Cox, Catriona Secker, Katie Gamb, Ginklet, Beinart Gallery

The jocular nature finally wore thin in the climax: Samoan women have been stereotyped and sexualised by gendered and religious discrimination, and they were out for blood. All that remained was an instinct for rage under veneer after veneer of survival. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt was a testament to the truth of Pasifika womanhood. It was an honest account of what it means to be displaced between so many cross-cultural lands, and how to find your way back with temerity and grace.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt
Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
Writer: Tusiata Avia
Director: Anapela Polata’ivao
Choreographer/Stage Manager: Mario Faumui
Production Manager/Sound Operator: Emily Hakaraia
Drummer: Leki Jackson-Bourke
Set Design: Jane Hakaraia and Tyla Vaeau
Lighting Designer: Rachel Marlow
Lighting Operator: Peter Davison
Executive Producer Victor Rodger: FCC Productions
Producer: Andrew Malmo

Cast: Anapela Polata’ivao, Stacey Leilua, Joanna Mika-Toloa, Petmal Lam, Ilaisaane Green, Leki Jackson-Bourke (musician)

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt was performed 18-20 April 2024.

Karen Leong is a Hong Kong-born writer, journalist and critic. Drawn to reclamation and desire, her body of work operates as semiotic storytellers across art, film and fashion. Alongside her written practice, Karen works across performance and media in bridging the juncture between film and text. You can find more of her work on Vice Asia, Astrophe Magazine, Leste Magazine, and @karen.gif.