Wild Dogs Under My Skirt

By Tusiata Avia. Director Anapela Polata’ivao. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 18-20 April, 2024

Reviewed : 18 April, 2024*

Photo : supplied

I am so glad I had the chance see this production! Not just because it is feisty and funny; nor because its messages “hit us hardhard” like “Aunty Fale’ and her broomstick in the poem “My Dog”! But because I knew that before I could start writing about the performance itself, I had to find out more about Tusiata Avia and her work!

And that has been very moving … stirring … and disturbing … just like the production itself.

Tusiata Avia is a New Zealand poet of Samoan and Palagi (European) background. She has received multiple awards for her work and was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2020. According to the judges of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Avia finds “eloquent ways to speak out against, horrors, injustices and abuse. Both domestic and public” – a quote that aptly describes just what Wild Dogs Under My Skirt has to say.

Beneath its humour, physicality and beautiful, strong voices there is hurt, despair and anger.

Director/performer Anapela Polata’ivao with performers Stacey Leilua, Joanna Mika-Toloa, Petmal Lam, Ilaisaane Green and drummer Leki Jackson-Bourke bring a selection of Avia’s poems to frightening, funny and physical life in this very strictly timed and graphic production.

Photo : supplied

Polata’ivao’s direction is tightly tied to the rhythms of Samoan music and dance that inextricably pulse through Avia’s writing.

There is also that juxtaposition of poise and volatility that is often reflected in many Pacific Island stories. An introductory song that features the elegant arms, hands and swaying hips of Samoan dance is juxtaposed with a very wry description of the salt and fat content of the tinned corned beef that has been introduced to the Samoan diet.

Contrasts such as this can be found in much of Avia’s work. She adds comic “stings” to harsh criticisms of patriarchy, inequality and abuse and Polata’ivao makes that comedy an intrinsic part of the production – until the very poem that gives it its title.

Based on the custom of women’s legs being tattooed decoratively – and assumedly seductively – from the thigh to just below the knee, the poem begins defiantly with the words: “I want to tattoo my legs/not blue or green/ but black”. The black thighs “like the black octopus that catch rats and eat them” would  hopefully, be like “wild dogs under my skirt” scaring away any unwanted male aggression.

Photo : supplied

While the harsh words of that poem are spoken abrasively above them, four performers kneel at the front of the stage barking and snarling viciously at the audience, teeth bared and eyes blazing. It is a chilling finale that is in keeping with the tenor of Avia’s work. She is a provocative writer whose messages reach beyond the stage and the South Pacific.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt plays for only two days, but you can read much of Tusiata Avia’s poetry online including the chillingly beautiful “I Cannot Write a Poem About Gaza” …

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance