With the world’s spotlight on Tuvalu as the Pacific nation faces destructive consequences from climate change, Au Ko Tuvalu rips news straight from the headlines, showcasing the reality of the country’s plight in a bittersweet, poignant and affecting new play.
Written, directed and produced by Tavita Nielsen-Mamea, Au Ko Tuvalu follows three siblings preparing to leave their home for a new life in Aotearoa as the world’s first climate-change refugees.
“Au Ko Tuvalu has come around at the perfect time,” says Nielsen-Mamea. “Especially for Tuvalu and the other smaller islands that are dealing with climate change on the frontlines. They don't have the privilege of sitting back and acting like climate change isn't real.”
With a population of just over 11,000 people, Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest state in the world, with its highest point sitting just 4.5 metres above sea level, in contrast to most of New Zealand which sits around 600 metres above sea level.
“There's this saying that they have in Tuvalu - 'you save Tuvalu, you save the world’,” says Nielsen-Mamea. “And it’s true - if Tuvalu goes down and no one in this world has stepped up to do anything, who's next?”
Prior to its upcoming season in Ōtautahi, Au Ko Tuvalu first debuted as one of three developing plays in the 2018 Ē Toru festival at The Forge.
After its sold-out performance, the play went on to a development workshop with Victor Rodger through Playmarket’s Brown Ink programme, before winning two awards at the Wellington Fringe Festival and performing a return season at the Kia Mau Festival.
Now, following mentorship with Nina Nawalowalo ONZM (Artistic Director & Co-Founder of The Conch) through the Emerging Artists Trust, Au Ko Tuvalu is returning to the South Island for a full season in what feels like a full circle for this critically acclaimed production.
“This is a universal play. Even though it's based in Tuvalu – and is in fact the first official Tuvaluan play! - the issue is universal,” Nielsen-Mamea explains.
Starring a group of rising Pasifika stars (Malia ‘Ahovelo, Spencer Papalii, Bella Robertson and Susilia Tealei Kauapa) and supported by the Tuvaluan community of Ōtautahi, Au Ko Tuvalu takes the global and abstract concept of climate change and makes it personal and relatable. While siblings Lifa and Maleko are excited for their new life in Aotearoa, their sister Fetau doesn’t want to say goodbye to their homeland.
“For some reason, we can't have empathy for the earth like we should. But we can have empathy for other people and that's what I've based this play on. If we talk about the people of Tuvalu and what they’re going through, we can ask ourselves ‘what would we do if that was us?’”
Nielsen-Mamea himself is of Samoan/Tuvaluan descent, which inspired him to write this ground-breaking production.
“What really scares me and pushed me to write this play is the question of 'what do I say to my children’ when my kids come along – because they may never see Tuvalu. How do I explain to them why that happened and keep that culture living without any whenua? That's why there's that line in the play – ‘it's hard to believe what you can't see.’ But the truth is, we're going to have to start doing so.”