For more than 20 years, Victor Rodger has been writing for the stage and television – and often focusing on identity, race, and racism. Here he fields questions from Dale Husband and reflects on the path he’s been taking.
I’m a Christchurch boy originally. I’m the son of a teenage Palagi mother and a Samoan father, and I think those two people have been both, in their own ways, very influential on my writing – Dad, because he was largely absent, and Mum because she was so very present.
I grew up with my Palagi mother and my Scottish grandparents, with quite a traditional white upbringing, and it wasn’t really until about the end of high school that I started to move towards the Samoan world and started to try and negotiate my Samoan father and, by extension, his culture. And that’s been quite a fraught journey sometimes, but I love my culture now and I stand in it comfortably, on my own terms.
I would say, though, that Mum and Dad were very influential, and so was my Scottish grandmother, Nora Rodger, who passed a couple of years ago. Wonderful, wonderful woman.
Last year my play Black Faggot was in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I managed to go out to her hometown Broughty Ferry, which is in Dundee, and it was nice to do a little pilgrimage to where it all started for her.
Her husband, Grandad Alan, was conceived in Scotland and born in New Zealand, but he considered himself Scottish too. Mum, now Nora Williams, was the third of their three children.
When I was born, Mum was a teenage mother, and this was just at the tail end of it being socially unacceptable to have a child out of wedlock. So Social Welfare had a family ready for me to be brought up with. But my grandmother put her foot down, and she went: “This child is a Rodger. He’s not going anywhere.” And my grandparents actually adopted me.
So, just for a few years, and this is very similar to the Jack Nicholson story, I thought my grandparents were my parents and that my mother was my sister. But the truth came out before I went to school.
And all this was going on in Christchurch?
Yes. I grew up in the suburb of Wainoni, near Aranui, on the east side of town. And with schools, I went Linwood all the way, Linwood North Primary, Linwood Intermediate, and Linwood High which is also where Mr Mike Hosking went, although you would never guess it from what comes out of his mouth, on his shows or in his columns.
My high school was, back in the day, very mixed. It had lots of brown working-class kids like me, as well as all the comparatively affluent white kids from Sumner and Redcliffs coming down off the hill. And we all amalgamated there in the early to mid-eighties.
Were you conscious of your brownness?
That’s a very interesting question. For many years, the fact that I had a Samoan father was purely that. A fact. It had no emotional weight whatsoever. I think the tipping point for me was probably in the sixth form. All my friends at school were white and, by the time I got to the seventh form the only students of colour were me and one Māori.
But I remember in the sixth form one of my three best friends cracking a joke: “How do you know a Samoan has robbed your house? Your jandals are gone and your cat’s pregnant.” And I remember everybody laughing, except for me — and me going: “That’s actually not funny and I don’t actually understand why that is funny.”
Probably that was the point at which I began to identify with my Samoan side and started moving towards it. But, until that point, it had purely been a fact. And I remember, when an English teacher wanted me to apply for a Pacific Island scholarship, I was really indignant. “I happen to be Samoan. Kinda. But so what?” But that attitude started to change in the last year of my high school.
Was your mum comfortable about the situation? Or were your dad and his side of the family kept in the background?
My parents were never physically together, so I’ve never lived with my father. But I knew him from a reasonably early age. Like a day here and a day there seeing him. As a child, though, for me the Samoan culture was something very foreign and not something I felt an affinity towards. In fact, it was something I viewed very negatively because my father had left my mother to raise me by herself. So I had that hurdle to overcome during this journey towards the culture.
Mum, on the other hand, was very desirous that I learn the language and the culture as a child. I was completely disinterested and rejected all her overtures to learning it — which I regret now because the language is something I wish I had under my belt.
Was your dad living in Christchurch?
Yeah, he was for many years, until he moved to Brisbane in the late eighties. He had a relationship with someone else before my mother fell pregnant and, without going into the details, there are half-siblings who weren’t aware of my existence until we were all about 17 or 18. And, when they became aware of me, it was all a little bit dramatic. I used all of that in Sons, my first play.
Were you involved in cultural things at school?
Not at all. Nothing like that kicked in until I left high school and went straight into being a cadet journalist on the Christchurch Star which was then a daily newspaper.
This was around the time my consciousness as a Pacific Islander was starting to kick in. And I remember one of the first moments I put my hands on my hips was when I read a review of Witi Ihimaera’s book The Matriarch. The Pākehā reviewer was saying: “We lose so much because we don’t understand the language.” And I was like: “Well, who is this we? This we does not include me. Who are you talking to?” That’s something I still find happening in the media today.
What were you hoping to achieve as a journalist?
I got into journalism purely to become a film reviewer. I grew up movie mad. Going to movies, reading movie books and movie reviews. So I wanted to be a movie reviewer, although, ultimately I ended up covering all sorts of entertainment — film, TV, and music — which was a great round for a journalist.
And, with my elevated consciousness, I often tried to pimp Māori and Pacific practitioners as much as I could. Like going out of my way to interview Nathaniel Lees, who was one of the elder statesmen of Samoan and New Zealand theatre. And also Stan Wolfgram, a Tongan/Cook Island actor/producer.
As much as I could, I tried to get my people and Māori people into the pages of that decidedly Pākehā-centric newspaper in that Pākehā-centric city.
When you turned from journalism to drama, were you inclined to be an introvert or an extrovert?
The most disorientating thing for me when I went to Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School, was that I was no longer a big fish in a small pond. I’d been used to being the jokester, the one that had people laughing. And, when I got to drama school, suddenly I was with a whole lot of big fishes in the same pond. Sharing the spotlight, I guess, was something I found quite odd.
I had never acted before I went to drama school and, I have to say, I auditioned only because I didn’t want to be turning 50, looking back, and wondering “what if?”
But I’m really glad I went, if for no other reason than that I made some pivotal relationships there. Personal and professional.
Perhaps these days there’s a bit more merging of Māori and Pacific. Have you found that it’s now not so much “them” and “us”?
As a matter of fact, when I got to drama school, it was very bicultural — and I hated it to start with. We had taha Māori classes which I tried to get abolished because I was like “I’d rather learn Samoan than Māori blah blah blah”. But I’m actually really glad that the school is so bicultural, because, if you’re not going to honour the Treaty at the national drama school, where are you going to honour it? And for a lot of us who hadn’t been exposed to Māoritanga in any real way before, myself included, it’s a powerful and a beautiful thing.
In terms of the “Us and Them”, it’s become clear to me that we need to start working together more and more, as a block. Still with our own agendas, but working together.
Here I am with a Māori whakapapa but with a Pākehā name. Dale Husband. And you’re in a similar situation. Were you ever tempted to go for a Samoan handle?
No. Never. Because Victor Rodger is my name, and Rodger is my mother’s name — and I carry that name proudly because she’s the one who raised me.
So, no, I was never tempted to change my name but, at drama school, a lot of people did change their names, particularly the Māori students and the occasional Pacific student too.
Now, looking over the whole scene, how do you see the state of Māori and Pacific theatre?
For me, it’s clear that brown, be it Māori or Pacific, is the future. Absolutely. Statistically, we’ll be the majority in the not too distant future — and that’s going to be reflected in the stories being told. And what excites me as a writer is that more and more of us are taking control of how we’re represented. In the 20 years or so that I’ve been writing, we’ve seen plenty of examples of film, TV, and theatre written by non-Māori and non-Pacific Islanders where the Māori and PI characters sound nothing like the people we know in real life. So I don’t want to see any more examples of it being so wretchedly wrong.
In terms of writers who inspired me as a Pacific Islander, it all starts with Albert Wendt. His book Sons for the Return Home is very reflective of my parents’ ill-fated, mixed-race relationship.
My favourite New Zealand play is Have Car Will Travel which was recently on at Te Pou, the new home for Māori theatre in Auckland. It’s by Mitch Tawhai Thomas who was from my year at drama school. That looks at contemporary race relations and is an outstanding play.
I think the state of our stuff is very, very healthy and it’s just going to get healthier. Which is great because I really want us to get up to the top of the pyramid where we’re making the decisions.
I understand that your latest play Club Paradiso is about to take the stage. On June 2 in fact. What prompted you to write this one?
Well, it’s my fifth play with my good friend Robbie Magasiva. And it all stems from him saying he’d never played a bastard — and that he wanted the opportunity to do that.
Ultimately, I came up with the idea for Club Paradiso — and the easiest way to describe it is “Tarantino comes to South Auckland”. It’s about a small group of staff and customers who’re at a bar, and it’s closing time, when in walks Robbie Magasiva’s character, covered in blood. With a gun. And stuff goes down for the next hour or so.
It’s the most intense thing I’ve ever written. It won’t be to everybody’s taste. But people won’t be able to avoid having an opinion about it. Even if they hate it. You can’t not have an opinion about this piece.
Club Paradiso is on in Auckland from June 2 - June 6
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