THEATER NOTES : Island Writer : A Fiji playwright looks at sexism, racism, education and religion on an island where differing cultures intermingle.
THE REAL “SOUTH PACIFIC”: Until recently, Larry Thomas was one of only two native playwrights living in the 100 inhabited islands of the republic of Fiji. “And then,” he said with a smile, “the other one moved to Hawaii.”
Thomas, 31, isn’t in Fiji at the moment either; he’s artist-in-residence at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. His play, “Men, Women and Insanity,” will be performed tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the University’s on-campus Little Theatre.
The play deals with prejudice in many forms: sexism, racism, education and religion among them. It’s set in Fiji, where it was first performed, and where many cultures intermix with varying degrees of ease. There are the native islanders, Europeans who started to arrive when Fiji was a part of the British Empire and descendants of Indians and Pakistanis who had been brought by the British to serve as laborers.
“There are very strong cultures with very strong differences,” said Thomas. “It’s very rare for an Indian to marry a Fijian. I’m very interested in the mixed-race issue.”
Thomas himself is of mixed ancestry; his mother’s family has both Indian and British branches. “I’m not so sure about my father,” Thomas said. “He and my mother separated when I was quite young.” His mother worked as a domestic “for very little pay,” while bringing Larry up. After attending the University of Canberra, Australia, Thomas went to work for the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji’s capital, where he developed instructional manuals on various subjects for the University’s about 5,000 correspondence students.
“I had been doing theater in my spare time, starting with walk-on parts while I was still in high school,” he said. “The theater had been built by British expatriates for fellow ex-Brits; there were very few Fijians involved when I started.”
Developing his own local theater from a community with no professional actors, Thomas said he first “drew off the street: unemployed people, housewives, anybody who wanted to join. Now I have a core of people who have the basics of acting. One of the great advantages of using non-professionals is that the people come in very fresh, uninhibited and eager. You lose some of the subtleties of performing, but you can’t have everything.”
Thomas faced something of the same situation when casting the Cal Lutheran production of “Men, Women and Insanity.” The play takes place in Fiji, and the Cal Lutheran student population isn’t renowned for its high percentage of Pacific Islanders. In fact, he says, “no ethnic minorities showed up to auditions. Finally I recruited some, from the student body and one faculty member.”
Thomas said he finds Southern California “fascinating . . . I love the multiplicity of it, the variety. The only thing I don’t like is that Los Angeles is so spread out; it’s hard to get around.” Thomas has no car.
Before coming here, his impressions of Americans and American culture were shaped by films and videocassettes that are popular in the islands, especially action movies (“Rambo is an institution” and slasher pictures (“The ‘Friday the 13th’ series is a big hit in Fiji.”)
“We get a very wrong impression of America,” he said. “What we see mainly is the people who are very rich and the violence. There’s the fear that you’d walk down the street and somebody would pull out a gun and shoot you. I hate myself for thinking that, but that is what I was led to expect.”
The Fijian view of life in the States has taken on additional texture thanks to the introduction of television, which finally came to the islands late last year.
“The first American programs broadcast to Fiji included ‘Murphy Brown,’ ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘In Living Color,’ ” said Thomas. “The biggest joke of all is that we have ‘The Simpsons.’ I’ve tried to watch it several times, but I just don’t understand it.”
PLAYS ON THE WAY: Several local companies have announced their 1993 seasons, a typical mix of obvious crowd-pleasers and more adventurous fare. No Neil Simon, yet, and no repetitions since the Ojai Shakespeare Festival decided not to perform “Measure for Measure,” after all.
Coming up from the Conejo Players in Thousand Oaks are “The Baby Dance,” Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” A. R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room,” “A Few Good Men” (the film version will have come and gone by then), “Oh! Coward” (a revue of Noel Coward songs), and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
On the schedule of Ventura’s Plaza Players are Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice and Lovage;” the off-Broadway musical satire of Catholic school life, “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?;” A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” with a multitude of local actors taking the two leads; and “Mail,” a musical from the creators of “Three Guys Naked from the Waist Up.”
Look for the Moorpark Melodrama’s upcoming productions of “Newscast Murder,” “Ali Baba and the Magic Cave,” “The Little Moormaid,” “Klondike Kalamity,” “The Truth About Cinderella” and “Hoodwinked.”
The California Shakespeare Company, also based in theater-happy Moorpark, has lined up “Richard III,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Measure for Measure,” and the Ojai Shakespeare Festival is scheduled to perform “The Taming of the Shrew” on Saturday and Sunday afternoons between July 31 and Aug. 15, with an as-yet-undetermined main production with “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Othello” among the titles being bandied about.
For further information, contact the Conejo Players at 495-3715, the Plaza Players at 642-9460, the Moorpark Melodrama at 529-1212, the California Shakespeare Company at 498-3354, and the Ojai Shakespeare Festival--who are now actively seeking people to participate in such areas as fund raising and publicity, as well as backstage work--at 646-2917.