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The Factory: Pacific musical brings soul to the shop floor

Mar 6, 2013 Theatre

As a latch-key kid in the early 80s, Vela Manusaute would wander down Franklin Rd, through Victoria Park Market, to the bed factory where his father worked the machines. Manu “Sam” Manusaute had come to New Zealand from Samoa in search of a better life for his family, trading swaying palm trees and island time for rigid assembly lines and clocking in.

Now Vela Manusaute and Anapela Polataivao, the prime movers behind stage collective Kila Kokonut Krew (Taro King, Strictly Brown), are revisiting those immigrant experiences in The Factory, New Zealand’s first Pacific musical.

Set in 1974, The Factory follows Losa (Milly Grant-Koria), a young Samoan arrival, whose job at an Auckland garment factory forces her to navigate the equally foreign worlds of workplace politics and Palagi culture.

It’s a story that’s both deeply personal (Manusaute calls it “a tribute to my late father and thousands of other Islanders who came here with a dream”) and universal: Grant-Koria says the culture shock Losa experiences will be familiar to anyone who’s arrived in New Zealand from overseas. The self-possessed actress/singer/dancer has nabbed starring roles in a number of local musicals, but The Factory is her big break.

It wasn’t just a big break, but a lucky one too — she almost didn’t audition at all. Musical director Tama Waipara (who’s also managing the arts festival’s Maori and Pacific Island programme) remembers how the production team got to the end of the last day of try-outs still unconvinced they’d found their Losa. “Then someone said, ‘I saw this amazing girl play Maria in West Side Story.’ So we got hold of Milly and managed to convince her to come in straightaway and audition cold. When she opened her mouth to sing, I think all our mouths hit the floor at the same time. She has one of those voices you want to hear again and again and again.”

“The look on [Waipara’s] face was, ‘Yep,’” says Grant-Koria. “I knew I had it. The problem was, I didn’t know what I’d just auditioned for. I just had to trust him.”

The Factory had an initial outing at the Mangere Arts Centre in 2011, but the 2013 version has been completely reworked, with new characters, new story directions and a reworked score: Waipara and line producer Jonathan Alver, an opera veteran, have put a rocket under Poulima Salima’s soulful songs. “The musical energy of the show is all theirs,” says Manusaute. “What can I say about Tama? It takes a Maori to show the Islanders up!

“When I first brought the idea of The Factory to the Kila Kokonut Krew, I told them we needed to do something extraordinary,” he says. “We’re celebrating our people’s past, and our future. I never got on well with my father, I never had a connection with him. But this is my way of saying thank you.”

The Factory, March 6-11 2013, Q Theatre.

Photo: Stephen Langdon.


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