Under the Trees Pasifika Theatre Project starts in Shepparton

“Never pick wet apples! They’ll rot faster!” Nothing could speak better to the journey that lies ahead with Under the Trees, a compelling new multimedia theatre work being developed in Shepparton by local Pasifika arts collective Know Your Roots (KYR) Inc and Melbourne-based Pasifika creatives from Pacific Island Creative Arts Australia (PICAA).

Set in present-day Shepparton, this seminal new work will delve deeply into the history of migrant Pasifika farm workers and will bring to life their stories along with those of their children who have grown up far from their Island homelands.

“With its rich history and vibrant dwellers, we can’t wait to see what will unfold from the Shepparton stories once they’re ready for picking. I can’t wait for the next stage of this project” says Asalemo Tofete who recently spent the weekend in Shepparton along with his PICAA colleagues meeting and hearing from local community.

Asalemo Tofete is a director, playwright and award-winning actor and is one of a formidably talented team of PICAA creatives including APRA Music Awards nominated composer and ethnomusicologist Rita Seumanutafa, designer and textile artist Gina Tafea and musician Sikivi Tafea, who will guide the development and production of Under the Trees.

Tofete explains that storytelling is an ancestral artform in Pasifika cultures, “It is how the tales of our ancestors, the history of our tribes, and the paths of our lineage were preserved from generation to generation. Stories were passed down through oratory, songs and dance. It is in our blood!”

Tofete and the PICAA team will collaborate with Shepparton Pasifika community and a local cultural collective, Know Your Roots (KYR) Inc who worked with MAV throughout 2019 to secure over $70,000 in funding for the project from Creative Victoria, Australia Council for the Arts and Festivals Australia.

Know Your Roots (KYR) Inc Director and local Samoan cultural leader Mellisa Silaga is also excited to see this project finally come to life after a long COVID interruption. She reflects on the weekend with PICAA artists, “Taking our PICAA family around and hearing the stories of families in our community took me back to the days when we first migrated to Mooroopna in the late 90s. We like many of our families today, came here drawn by the promise of the land of milk and honey. Fruits on a tree literally equal wealth and opportunity.”

While there have been many fruits on the trees and success stories it has not been all milk and honey. Long term Pasifika farmworkers are vital to the success of our horticultural industry yet they remain all but invisible in literature around Australia’s farming labour force and they have been largely ignored by government in favour of policies that attract new intakes of skilled migrants and seasonal workers.

Many long-term Pasifika workers are highly regarded by farmers as experienced and valued workers, but this is often not reflected in their pay and the stereotype of ‘fruit pickers’ belies the wide range of skills they employ to grow, harvest and pack produce.

These issues have also impacted the children of Pasifika farm workers who although being born and raised in Australia continue to be stigmatised as ‘fruit pickers’.  They are often overlooked for higher education and training opportunities and struggle to move beyond the arduous and precarious seasonal work that their parents have depended on.

This has affected aspirations, confidence and motivation for many young Pasifika people who want to stay in the regions with their families, but whose life opportunities are limited by systemic marginalisation and discrimination. Culturally appropriate supports would increase their skills and opportunities enabling them to realise dreams and their potential to make diverse and valuable contributions in their regional hometowns.

With persistent governmental neglect, groups like Know Your Roots (KYR) Inc and PICAA are starting to come up with innovative solutions to these issues themselves.

PICAA Director Rita Seumanutafa says “We are so excited to be working with Know Your Roots to reconnect our youth in Shepparton with Pacific Island pride. This project will highlight the strength in our communities and will enable our youth express to their identities, their pride, also their fears and how these are played out in their lives as the working class of regional Victoria. The arts provide a natural environment for us to express our way of life, so this project will empower our young people through truth telling and reconnecting them to their rich cultural heritage.”

Over the next 6 months, PICAA and Know Your Roots (KYR) Inc will collaborate in creative development to craft this groundbreaking new work which will be presented in Shepparton over 3 shows at Riverlinks Westside on Friday 12 and Saturday 13 November 2021.

Stay tuned for updates of the work in progress here at www.mav.org.au.

All above images by Ofeira Simaika, Mellisa Silaga and Anita Larkin.