“I am the play”: The drama of authenticity in John Kneubuhl’s Mele Kanikau

Performing arts Storytelling Theatre Samoa Pacific Area
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This research engages with the work of afakasi American-American Samoan playwright John Kneubuhl. As a polycultural, pan-Pacific dramatist, Kneubuhl’s work explores post-colonial discourses, power structures and social and cultural hierarchies. An afakasi playwright also concerned with authenticity, Kneubuhl wrote from both inside and outside these contesting dialectics of power and his unique dramatic voice fuses the best of Modernist Western drama with the ancient Samoan performance tradition of Fale Aitu. By navigating the complicated spaces between his worlds, however uneasily, Kneubuhl advocated for theatre that spoke to and for Polynesian people. Through the production of Mele Kanikau: A Pageant, and a Tongan based methodology of kie1 weaving, this thesis engages with and explores Kneubuhl’s work as an agent of change. In his published trilogy of plays, Kneubuhl presents cultures in crisis, at risk of not only the on-going and enormous impact of colonization, but new dangers in the forms of global commodification, the burgeoning demands of tourism, and the more critical, and much more subtle threat from within – Polynesian people themselves. This thesis and my production also engage with the occasion and impulse for the composition of Mele Kanikau. By exploring the dramatic manifestation of Kneubuhl’s afakasi heritage in Mele Kanikau and the play’s existential concerns with personal and cultural loss this research problematizes the drama of authenticity played out in the play.

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