Purple Onion - Le Moana
17 June 2017, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington
Kia Mau Festival
Reviewed by Leah Maclean
If you are a millennial Wellingtonian like me, then the name purple onion might just denote a delicious root vegetable that goes nicely in guacamole. But in the disco decades of downtown Wellington, the Purple Onion was a premiere strip-club and burlesque parlour that solidified the red-light district on the Vivian and Cuba Quarter and famously kick-started the careers of some of New Zealand’s best drag queens.
Led by the talented Tupe Lualua, Pacific dance and theatre company Le Moana pay homage to Wellington’s pioneering adult club in the Kia Mau Festival. Purple Onion is a snapshot into a time where homosexuality was illegal, where dancing and drinking was barely legal and a time where the Pacific identity was working to make its place in New Zealand society. Purple Onion is funny, sexy, interesting and a special piece of Pasifika work.
The story is led by the fabulous Madame Charlene. She is bodacious, full of sass, passion and is a little a bit terrifying – make a mistake she’ll call you a little c**t and throw you out on your ass. Complementing Madame Charlene is the soft-spoken Fusi who tells the story of her family and involvement in the club from a perch above the stage, like a doting mother and an all-seeing eye. Live music accompanies the work which is an absolute delight, it’s hard not to bop along to the disco tunes and be blown away by Madame Charlene’s killer vocals.
The characters of the Purple Onion are eclectic and full of energy. They throw everything they have into the performance and do not hold back on the burlesque and stripping components - some members of the audience were ‘treated’ to some gyrating and lap dances. The melding of Pacific dance, disco and burlesque was seamless; not once did it feel tacky or forced. The performers, three women and three men, showed their dancing chops in the ease of their transitions between sensuous and smooth to raunchy and bold in a second. A highlight for the audience were Fusi’s three sons successfully commanding the stage with their synchronicity, flirtations, struts, finger pointing and over the top poses; an island version of the Bee Gees. Not to mention the incredible solo by Kate Ngatokorua who showcased Cook Island dance so fiercely, she received cries of encouragement and awe as her hips moved beautifully and independently with the music.
The lighting on the performers created beautiful and opulent silhouettes, emphasising the nightclub vibe. The costumes were well thought out and helped one connect with the decade and environment it was set in – flared pants, vests, corsets, fishnet tights and G-strings. The story was indeed a snapshot and unfortunately I lost track of the characters names and some of their stories, the lack of programme didn’t help my cause. I would be eager to see the Purple Onion developed further and performed on a larger stage, the small space of the Hannah, though lovely and intimate, was not quite enough to do justice to the attitude of the work. Tupe and Le Moana are to be applauded for bringing to the stage a slice of some of Wellington’s more enigmatic history and the stories of Pacific culture which are often swept under the rug.