Ahh, the memories… where do I start?
The embryo of this show was a quagmire of thought strands trickling out of my subconscious, looking for a canvas to splash onto. I found that canvas in the form of thirsty ears and hungry minds with an insatiable appetite for narrative weaved together in this group called ‘Writer’s Block’ by a man who was ever searching for the bigger picture. I owe it all to them really, because of the space they gave me, the attention, the feedback, I was able to string the trickles together into a kind of sense, which gave birth to an idea, an idea that became ‘Who’s Poppin?’.
On our first production meeting, Hone slid a napkin over the coffee table with details about the budget of the show. Zero, it said. The budget was Zero.
I was ridiculously unrealistic with my objectives. It was a stupid-crazy attempt at telling a story about a street culture, housed in the culture of Theatre, through an unconventional structure about a dance form: a subject matter that was a culture in its own right, that was its own language of expression. I often felt as though I was trying to paint sound, or trying to find the pitch of colour. Furthermore, I loved the convention Shakespeare created in Hamlet of a play within a play. I loved that Tom Stoppard advanced this convention in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, writing a play, within a play, within a play. Though I felt the objectives were already insurmountable, I didn’t care and attempted to advance it in my own way, painting a metaphor, within a metaphor, within a metaphor, within a play. Ridiculous. Yet, a profit percentage in the thousands, a very flattering review, an award and an invitation to remount the show at Downstage Theatre as the result of that napkin slide by Hone and these ridiculous objectives… we did alright I reckon.
The way the thespian community responded to the show irks me to this day. I am forever grateful that it created an interest with a wider audience than theatre-goers but I just couldn’t enjoy it. I knew the show was regarded as childish and thus, reduced to something ‘hip for the kids’. I understood why; It’s the typical perception about Hip Hop that I had grown accustom to, it’s the typical colonial attitude toward cultural content. Sure, it was a high energy show. Sure, it was a ‘coming of age’ journey for the character, but it was more profound than that. Firstly, looking at the structure, though the revelation of information was conventional, the tools I experimented with to tell the story was not. A drummer on stage in the form of my good ol’ uso Elia Feterika, was unprecedented as far as I was concerned: Elia and I had no previous examples to learn from. Using a DJ, my uso DJ RAW, as the antagonist was another tool I had no previous manual for in theatre. My saving grace was really the years of space shared between myself and these gifted artists. It cut through so much talk. It got us straight to the action.
Secondly, looking at the content, for perfect conditions to miraculously occur in the most impossible of circumstances, giving birth to an artform in the racially oppressive streets of America; to reach all corners of earth, (including little old Aotearoa) to affect so many underprivileged and oppressed people around the world, empowering so many that it shifted dramatically their course of direction in life… how was that journey not worthy of being taken seriously? Maybe my craftmanship was not worthy, the objectives were ridiculously unrealistic after all, especially for a ‘rookie’ playwright. I failed. Of course I did, I tried to write all the stories of my life in my first: A typical rookie mistake. Still, the content I was trying to present, the unconventional tools and devices I was attempting to present with, surely my work ethic was worthy of being taken seriously?
The creative license I was given by Tawata was a gentle caress toward self-empowerment. What I thought was going to be a cool little journey of bringing something I loved onto the stage became much, much more. I believed I knew the challenge but could only intellectualise it. Once it dropped into the body, what I realised was that I was undergoing a deeply personal expression of an artistic incarceration I’d been subjected to. Turfed out of an institution, outcasted again. Thespians were the community of rebels that left me for dead because I was too rebellious. Nothing new though, in fact it is modus operandi for a proud and confident person of colour. Nothing new, when you’re an outspoken Islander that has ideas about the world too. The best way to imprison a mind is to leave it out in the cold.
I guess that’s why I chose Popping as my subject matter. God knows it wasn’t because I thought I was good at it… I’ve never considered myself a dancer. I chose Popping because it was resilient enough to withstand the cold. I chose Popping because the movement perfectly articulated my own movement in life. Consider this:
- What would Black American men living in San Francisco in the ‘60s look like? Generally, not affluent. Now, what working class could validate themselves as an artist back then? Art wasn’t made for poor people, and they aren’t sophisticated enough to make Art, as the elite propaganda states…
- When creative energy is confined and suppressed, it generally reincarnates as an electrical currency that permeates in the muscles. Eventually, you either burn down the City with it or, as certain Black American men called ‘The Electric Boogaloos’ did in San Fran, you encapsulate the feeling into a movement and express it in spite of your invisibility. Their expression is what we now call Popping.
- Their creation was trivialised, exoticized, patronised, plagiarised and then dismissed. Yet they continued to create, they continued to develop their craft and they continued to fight for their creation to be validated as an art form. And now, they are movement practitioners, traversing the globe as artists because that’s what they are in spite of it all. They came in from the cold.
When you strip away all the specific details and look at the narrative, that’s the life of creative incarceration I realised I had lived through. This show was my act of breaking out.
Who’s Poppin? by Sopa Enari, World Premiere Season February 2009, BATS Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand.
Sopa Enari is a playwright and a dramaturg based in Sydney, Australia.
In New Zealand, Sopa started his writing journey as a member of the writing collective ‘Writer’s Block’ led by renowned Māori writer Hone Kouka. Since then, he has had residencies in Griffin Theatre, Rock Surfers Theatre and Urban Theatre Projects. He has been a drama workshop and playwriting facilitator for Save the Children, Playwriting Australia, NIDA, The National Theatre of Parramatta, The Joan Sutherland Theatre and Sweat Shop Writers collective.
Sopa’s most recent dramaturgy roles have been for ‘Counting and Cracking’ (Belvoir), ‘Blackbirds’ (The Joan), ‘Postcards from the Wire’ (NTofP).