Which Way, Big Man?: Exit stage left (before we fall asleep)

Which Way, Big Man and five other plays, Nora Vagi Brash, 1996

  • Papua New Guinea, #8
  • Paperback, $2, Amazon.com
  • Read November 2016
  • Rating 2/5
  • Recommended for: earnest but unskilled dramaturges

These plays were great as an exploration of the tensions characterizing modern Papua New Guinea. Five of the six plays are concerned with different elements of the clash between traditional and modern civilization (the sixth is a dramatization of a pre-colonial episode, the destruction and rebuilding of the village of Taurama four hundred years ago). The issues are clearly and systematically explored through conflict between older and younger generations, city dwellers versus villagers, and Europeans (or those who aspire to live like them) against native Papuans.

California, 2005

However, I am very glad that I was only reading these plays and not having to watch them performed. The plots were simple, obvious, and without nuance. There was no subtext, only text. All the dialogue was expository, the characters one-dimensional; no one ever does anything unexpected in a Brash play. I think that watching them staged would be stupefyingly boring.

That is not to say that there weren’t a few scenes that worked. The one that stands out in my mind is from the last play, City Spirit, in which Noho, an old man from Papua New Guinea, visits his daughter in Australia and meets his grandson for the first time. They go to a museum where there is a display of Melanesian cultural artifacts and he is shocked to see a wooden carving that he recognizes as one of his sacred ancestral spirits. He sends his daughter away (women are not supposed to look at the spirit) and performs a ritual song and dance to appease the insulted spirit. It’s an affecting tableau–the old man shuffling, chanting, beating his chest before a glass case to the bemusement of the other museum-goers–but it is unfortunately couched in stilted, overblown dialogue, flimsy characterization, and insufficient plot. I can just about imagine a director staging one of these plays–perhaps someone very concerned with the dissemination of the culture of Papua New Guinea, and not particularly concerned with script quality–but it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine an audience enjoying the experience.

New York, 2006

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