Young Pacific playwright debuts Tongan theatre piece

Faith, family and culture is at the centre of a boxing ring in a new Tongan theatre show.

Dress rehearsal of ‘Hearts of Men‘ written by Albert Mateni and directed by Vela Manusaute Photo: RNZ Pacific / Sela Jane Hopgood

Tongan playwright, Albert Mateni, released his debut piece this month crafted over five years in hope to make Tongan theatre a permanent feature in New Zealand.

follows the life of Tongan boxer Tevita Lolohea and the challenges he faces to fufill his dream of winning gold for his country at the Olympics.

The story emphasises the theme of self-belief and Mr Mateni wants the audience to carry that theme with them outside of the theatre space.

He said he wanted to inspire aspiring Tongan writers and performers with the story, as there is a lack of Tongan theatre production in the country.

“When I finished drama school, I remember my drama teachers saying how hard it is for Pacific Islanders to get work in this industry, so they just said to create your own work.

“It was because of that advice that I wanted to give writing a go and actually tell stories that I would like to see on stage.

“I would write during my lunch breaks at work, jotting down numerous scenes and I wanted these scenes to build into a story that the audience could walk away from it having learnt something new that he/she could then apply it to their everyday life,” he said.

Albert Mateni, 2018 winner of the Tongan Youth Trust for Music and Art Award for his work on ‘Hearts of Men‘. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Sela Jane Hopgood

For a year leading up to the opening night of Hearts of Men, Mr Mateni took up the sport of boxing to prepare for the lead role.

“I really like method acting and so I started training as a boxer to really get into the mindset of my character. I did hours and hours of sparring.

“When it came to rehearsals for the show, the director Vela and his wife Anapela ended up cutting down a lot of my boxing techniques.

“The reason behind that is because its theatre that I am starring in, not film, and so the movements had to be more stylised.

“I have learnt so much as a writer and an actor for theatre from the two who have been in the industry for more than 20 years,” he said.

Director Vela Manusaute said it was important for him to help out young Pacific writers as he knows very well the struggle of producing work in the theatre.

“I was in his [Albert Mateni] place many years ago and I didn‘t have any support. I had to learn as I go along.

“Albert was an actor for one of my shows a few years ago, so I consider him as family and there are not many Tongan theatre shows coming out of New Zealand, so I had to share my experience with him.

“This show is special because the cast is young and I feel as director that I am passing down the torch to the future of Pacific theatre,” he said.

Director of ‘Hearts of Men‘ Vela Manusaute Photo: Supplied / GYM CMB LTD

The cast for Hearts of Men features Aleni Tufuga, Ana Corbett, Malia Ahovelo, Mikey Falesiu and Jason Manumu‘a.

Tongan actress Malia Ahovelo plays ‘Ofa Lolohea, the mother of the young boxer.

“My character is your typical Pacific island mother. She‘s a proud Tongan, God-fearing, funny, full of love for her son and very traditional,” Malia said.

“It‘s my first Tongan play. What I love about my character is how relatable she is.

“My character is also bilingual, so I speak fluent Tongan as well as English in the play and admittedly it was challenging as I am New Zealand-born and haven‘t been to Tonga,” she said.

Actress Malia Ahovelo starring in ‘Hearts of Men‘ Tongan theatre production Photo: RNZ Pacific / Sela Jane Hopgood

Albert Mateni was announced the 2018 winner for the Tongan Youth Trust for Music and Art Award for his work on Hearts of Men.

“It was such a big achievement for me especially for such a work of mine that is all about motivation, determination and inspiration.

“I want people in the Tongan community who want to be artists to see my work and see that it is possible to tell our stories that our stories can end up on stage and on screen” he said.