Le Nofo: The Rise to the Throne
For the first time since its inception, I was unable to attend the highly anticipated annual UTOPIA Washington L’au. Alike millions connecting through the ever-advancing world of technology, I was able to witness this year’s production of “Le Nofo: The Rise to the Throne” through social media. Since then, like an all-time favorite movie, the production of ‘Le Nofo’ has been watched repeatedly in our home and I am still in complete awe. I have never witnessed anything in my lifetime that has artistically portrayed fa’afafine in such a profound way. Indeed, I have witness and have been involved in countless fa’afafine-centered events throughout the years, but the production of ‘Le Nofo’ is entirely on a level of its own.
The epic tale tells of Seao, the child of Tagaloalagi, the mythical and mighty Samoan god-king. Prior to the arrival of missionaries, Tagaloalagi was once revered and worshipped in old Samoa. I will not spoil anything with complete detail, as my hope is for anyone reading this to experience ‘Le Nofo’ for themselves. ‘Le Nofo’ is brought to life through a gripping and compelling vision that captures the audience with invigorating choreography, vibrant costumes and powerhouse performances. While the stage production features are indeed an array of multiple elements and music of other Pasifika cultures, the plot centers around a fa’afafine.
”I wanted to illustrate the struggles of what fa’afafine and other Pacific Islander indigenous identities go through on a daily basis for being queer and trans.” said Ara-Lei Yandall, Cultural Program Director for UTOPIA Washington; she wrote and directed ‘Le Nofo’. “I wanted to highlight abandonment and how we have been ostracized by society for so many years. Yet we are always sought after for our talent(s). The society that we live in wants to utilize the talent but does not want to associate with the person.”
While Watching ‘Le Nofo’
Over the course of several days, I began to understand why it touched my heart so deeply. The production itself featured both leading and supporting Fa’afaine characters, portrayed entirely by fa’afafine and trans performers and produced and directed by fa’afafine trans women. Words are not enough to say how empowering and humbling this realization was as a fa’afafine woman myself.
The most beautiful feeling of all, for me, was to see how receptive and engaged the audience was towards a storyline and characters that revolved outside of the binary, focusing on fa’afafine and Pasifika third gender. “The burden of this storyline has weighed heavily on my heart”, said Ara-Lei during our telephone interview, “I kept thinking, ‘are we pushing the envelope too far?’, but as we moved closer to the show date, even the cast would reassure me many times that they loved the story. And when someone loves something, they put their all into it. That assurance, to me, came the night of the event while I was at the back of the audience watching an almost all-Pacific Islander audience wait on every word and scene. For the very first time, in that setting, they were not laughing at us, but drawn so deeply into the story. After the show, people came to me and expressed their gratitude for the message, for this eye-opener… How they were so sorry! That in itself, was so heart-rending to me.”
Real-life Unsung Heroes
The most heartfelt scenes of ‘Le Nofo’ came from the three “Vahulefine” (known as an ancient society of third-gender people), they brought both the drama and humor on stage and truly were the heart of the story. These characters embodied the epitome of Pacific Islander queer and trans identities that exist in the Oceania. They are naturally gifted healers, caretakers and eyes of all things beautiful. While their gifts are highly sought after, they are also relegated to perform minor duties because society often only sees them in those roles rather than being capable of anything greater. It is evident that the entire production of ‘Le Nofo’ was a loving tribute to those in such roles.
In the Samoan fa’afafine community, there are those who seek visibility at the forefront of our culture and there are those who work quietly behind the scenes making sure things run smoothly. Everyone is taken care of, and everything is beautiful. Inspired by ‘Le Nofo’ for this story of Fofola le Fala, I wanted to honor those Unsung Sheroes. I thought of such fa’afafine like my aunty Tiffany Potasi, who in my eyes is the consummate professional when it comes to roles and abilities of service.
If there is an event going on, whatever it might be, you would be able to find Tiffany waiting in the wings. That is the memory of how I first met her as well, we were introduced while she was in the kitchen making Samoan fried chicken for her mama queen, Leilani. “I was inspired by my mom” said Tiffany, “I know some people often say that you should put yourself first, but my mom instilled in me the importance of tautua (service). In our culture, you help others and your family first. That is who she was. I was never one who needed the acknowledgement or praise. When you do good things for others, they will remember that of you.”
Today, there are fa’afafine who want to break away from the usual roles of service and support to others because they feel it perpetuates the negative stereotypes. Not all fa’afafine are gifted in that sense and certain roles in Samoan society are still very taboo to fa’afafine. We hold jobs and duties outside of the service we do for others, but society seems to always attach fa’afafine solely to these very roles. I asked Tiffany about her views, she said “I know this younger generation of fa’afafine are rejecting such roles because of the stereotypes and ridicule that come with it. You hear some queens calling out the other, ‘your nothing but a vinda (fa’afafine slang word for slave)’. I get it. People only think of it that way, but there is a lot of discipline, management and control that comes with it. I have learned to embrace it. It is part of me, but it does not define who I am. I can “vinda” all day long, but when it is time to look beautiful and take center stage, I can easily jump into that role too. That’s me.”
There was a line during the narration of ‘Le Nofo’ that I felt was deeply significant towards the contributions of fa’afafine in Samoan society and it said: ”Fa’afafine, these beautiful unsung she-roes are the pillars of Samoan society and the backbone of all Samoan families. Their roles are vital as they continue to perpetuate the customs of Samoa.”
Art Imitates Life
One of the most poignant cultural displays in ‘Le Nofo’ came about when the actors performed an “ifoga”, the act of apology in traditional Samoan culture. The person(s) seeking forgiveness kneels before the home and/or family of the person they have wronged, covered in ‘ie toga, or fine mat. It could result in prolonged waiting, sometimes for days and weeks, or downright rejection, which can also lead to death, but forgiveness is only given once the person or family lifts the ‘ie toga off the transgressor.
In the late 1980s, a fa’afafine was killed by a drunk driver in an accident in Fagatogo, American Samoa as she was walking along the sidewalk. The driver came from a prominent lineage in the community and a traditional ifoga was performed by his family. The family of the fa’afafine accepted his plea for forgiveness and he was never prosecuted for the crime. While other Pacific islander cultures have their forms of cultural apology and forgiveness, the ifoga is unique to the Samoan experience and pertains only to the Fa’a Samoa (Samoan culture).
Another aspect of Samoan tradition dramatized in ‘Le Nofo’ is the “ta’alolo”, a form of gifting that involves an entire entourage led by a taupou (highly esteemed young Samoan woman) in a cultural display of affection. The ta’alolo, according to long time Society of Fa’afafine American Samoa (S.O.F.I.A.S) member Naeaulumanu’a Tasha Atio’o, is a term specifically used for a faaulufalega or umusaga, the dedication ceremony of a newly built church in Samoa. The first time I saw it the way it was performed in ‘Le Nofo’, was at the funeral of Shevon Matai in 2015 during the S.O.F.I.A.S’s si’i alofa, or display of affection for the passing of a loved one. “It was our S.O.F.I.A.S way of presenting our alofa. I cannot say it’s a ta’alolo unless we seek approval from an oratory chief”, Tasha said, “Another similar form is an ‘aiavā, but far less dramatic than a ta’alolo.”
The fact is that many customs and traditions of the fa’a Samoa have evolved to maintain its relevance in modern times. The ta’alolo performed in that way has taken on a life of its own. I have seen many other Samoan events, both big and small, with the same concept. However, no one could embrace and display it the way the fa’afafine community does with so much grace, elegance, and charisma. In its full and majestic beauty, it is a sight to behold once the music starts playing and the Samoan culture is in full motion. People stand on their feet to siva (dance) and celebrate their pride and appreciation. Samoan music is the catalyst of keeping our language and culture alive and well into the Samoan diaspora. It is truly a powerful form of cultural expression.
Since the debut of ‘Le Nofo’, many folks have been calling for an encore or traveling performance of the production. “I am flattered,” said Ara-Lei Yandall, “If the funding is offered, then of course that is something we could look into. There is so much commitment and effort that goes into huge projects such as this. There were fewer performers this year so most performers had to learn various choreography, act in performances and be backstage helpers. We also held several fundraisers for costumes and props. Right now, we’re setting our sights to other options we could concur with as a cultural team.” Ara also added that an official video was filmed and will soon to be released for commercial use. However, unauthorized recordings have been available online and on social media sites.
Being that ‘Le Nofo’ was such a significant event that brought the struggles of fa’afafine and other Pacific Islander queer and trans identities to center stage, I asked Ara what message she hopes for people to embrace from UTOPIA Washington’s visionary work?
“Any successful Samoan cultural event relies on the blood, sweat, and tears of the unseen masses of fa’afafine behind the scenes – enduring long hours of event mapping, protocols, cultural attire and decoration,” she said, “we are the silent and unseen talent behind many successful beauty pageants, weddings, church events, title investitures, and life celebrations. At the conclusion of many of these events, the hosts are often congratulated on their efforts in displaying or preserving the fa’a Samoa, yet the hard work and sweat of the fa’afafine community goes unrecognized. We do this work, not for our own praises or applause, but to ensure that when the fa’a Samoa is on display, it is done correctly and, in a manner, befitting it because it is dear to us.
I believe however that the time has come to highlight the contributions of every fa’afafine (as well as other Queer and Trans Pacific Islander identities) displaying their connection to culture. We need visibility for our siblings who teach cultural dance but remain uncredited. We need visibility for our siblings that compose and write cultural music but remain unheard. We need visibility for our siblings that spend hours coordinating and planning any major cultural event but remain unacknowledged. This sort of visibility may seem trivial to others, but the importance of the cultural work some of our own are currently undertaking cannot be understated. ‘Le Nofo’ is a love letter dedicated in honor of our fa’afafine community as well as the many indigenous gender identities that exist within Le Moana.”
A few years ago, I was in the audience during one of UTOPIA Washington’s talanoa programs and what Executive Director Taffy Maene-Johnson said inspired my soul and as a fa’afafine woman who has always lived a life from outside looking in, her message was empowering.
“We’re going to walk into a room, and we are going to take over space. And I want you to challenge that. Continue to take this movement forward. It is not just for you but for our future generations. When we leave here, we want our young ones to live authentically, be who they are and who they identify as in the space we occupy.”Taffy Maene-Johnson