The play's title is spare and unprepossessing. As are the production specifications that accompany its journey around the world: black box studio, CD player, cloth backdrop, armchair. Number of performers: one. But put New Zealand actor Madeleine Sami on stage in No. 2, and she makes good the threat of her ageing Fijian matriarch who has assembled her Auckland clan at a banquet to name her successor: "I'm going to make this place come alive."
Now at the end of its run at the Sydney Opera House before touring to the Netherlands later this week, No. 2 is a theatrical feast. Diminutive in frame but outsize in talent, Sami, 21, plays nine characters across three generations, from lisping seven-year-old Moses and hee-hawing homeboy Sol to the toothless, wasp-tongued Nanna Maria, whose party mixes kava with karaoke. The play's flavor is both exotic and familiar, culturally specific yet universal. When the visiting local priest asks Sol whether the naming ritual is a Fijian thing, he replies, "It's just a nanna thing." Audiences from Jamaica to Tasmania have agreed. At last year's Edinburgh Festival, where No. 2 took out a prestigious Fringe First award, Sami recalls being approached by a Swedish audience member, who tearfully pronounced: "That was my grandmother."
In fact Nanna Maria is British-born playwright Toa Fraser's homage to his Fijian grandmother, who moved from Levuka to Auckland in the 1940s and lived in the same house in working-class Mt. Roskill until her death in 1990. In No. 2, Nanna is haunted by visions of the mythical orange dove of her birthplace, but she accepts that her culture must adapt to survive in its new country. Here it has taken on the forms of her grandchildren. Among them are womanizing rugby player Tyson, aspiring model-turned-actress Hibiscus, and Charlene, an embittered homemaker-all candidates for the family leadership. For the feast, Nanna demands traditional roast pig and kava, but otherwise asks her grandchildren to "think outside the square." The playwright's view of culture is just as fluid. "What I'm trying to do with my writing," says Fraser, 26, "is to push the culture forward."
Sami is the living embodiment of that goal. The daughter of an Indo-Fijian father and Anglo-Celtic mother, she grew up over the hill from Fraser's grandmother in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga. "I'm a curried potato, and I'm fine with that," she says, with a Sol-like cracked laugh. "It tastes good." Fresh out of school, she exercised her untrained talents in an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess and a five-month stint on the soap Shortland Street. Her role as an Indo-Fijian intern brought her instant stardom in Fiji ("It gives me free taro chips," she says). But it's on stage that her quicksilver energy has found its mark. And in No. 2, she's a force of nature: she segues from Moses warbling karaoke, to Sol break-dancing, to a fistfight with brother Tyson -all without so much as sweating.
Fraser says he discovered Sami while working as a cinema supervisor in Auckland: "Madeleine had finished school and was going down the track of being a bit of a street kid, and I was walking across the road and saw her outside Burger King having a fight with this big Tongan guy, and my mates broke it up, and then I said to Madeleine, Here, channel your aggressive energies into something more positive,' and I gave her the script." It's a tall story (in fact, they met when she auditioned for, and won, a part in his first play, Bare). But it shows how easily racial stereotypes can be perpetuated. These are what Sami and Fraser neatly dismantle on stage.
In Bare, which won Fraser Best New Play and Best New Playwright at New Zealand's Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards in 1999, Sami played Venus, a gym babe in search of her roots. In No. 2, the pair come up with an even more memorable cultural hybrid: Tyson's English backpacker girlfriend Maria, who, while drunk on kava with Nanna, discovers that they might be related. "She looks like Salma Hayek, sounds like Gwyneth Paltrow," Sol says of Maria. In No. 2, Pacific culture is as cross-referenced as Fraser's text. Gathered at the feast table for the matriarch's announcement are a Godfather-style priest, with a South Auckland homeboy and an auditioner for the girl band TrueBliss, among others. "She's about as Fijian as the Spice Girls," Hibiscus says of Nanna. Which is the whole point of a play that thinks local and acts global.
For theatrical outing No. 3, in Auckland next year, Sami plans to star in Fraser's latest play, Paradise, set in a Fijian island resort two weeks before the May 2000 coup. With No. 2, they've staged a takeover of their own. With a modesty of means and freshness of spirit, Sami and Fraser have captured a moment when the old guard gives way to the new.