Funny, that

by Diana Wichtel / 09 December, 2006
It's been an extraordinary year for Oscar Kightley - subversive Naked Samoan, Arts Laureate, Power Lister, sneaker-lover.

First, we take Grey Lynn ...

Strolling into his favourite celebrity-belt café with the studied nonchalance of the naturally fiercely shy, Oscar Kightley doesn't look much like a revolutionary who, with his merry band of hilarious Samoans, has changed the complexion of local popular culture. Big shorts, baseball cap, sneakers: more like he's just fallen out of a frame of TV3's bro'Town.

Still, part of Kightley's bashful, increasingly bankable charm is the sense that he's never entirely made his way out of the evolutionary cul-de-sac that is the fourth-form boy. He's written plays about the traumatic dawn raids of the 70s. He's also written extensively, as sometimes flinching fans of bro'Town will know, about poohs and wees.

As a member of the brilliant, subversive Naked Samoans, he's had serious theatre-goers laughing nervously about getting a hiding from Mum with a hosepipe and an iron. And about skidmarks.

In Sione's Wedding, the movie he co-wrote, Kightley stars as Albert: disastrously dateless, still living with mum and making a belated run at growing up. The role puts his trademark woebegone expression to good use. Women, he confesses over a late-morning glass of water, have been coming up to him and saying, "Awww, I'd have gone out with you."

He doesn't assume on purpose the expression of a baby seal about to be clubbed. "I'm trying to be all bright and effervescent and perky," he insists, "and I get hangdog. Which people feel sorry for."

Not any more, possibly. 2006 has been quite a year. To be working on season four of bro'Town is cause enough for celebration, if not, given our industry's wretched history with sitcoms, the declaration of a national holiday. Sione's Wedding broke box-office records when it opened here. It's doing well in Hawaii and is soon to open in LA.

Last month, Kightley scored a laureateship and $50,000 ("tax free!") from the New Zealand Arts Foundation. This year's Listener Power List sees him debut at number 36, second youngest, at 37, after gazillionaire Sam Morgan.

"This year has been really out of it," he says, briefly swapping hangdog for gobsmacked. "Oh my God. It's like a finger coming out of the sky and giving you a tap on the back and going, 'Well done.'"

Sounds like an episode of bro'Town. And well-deserved recognition after all the lean times. "You can't get proper sneakers when you're on the dole," he observes. "And I love sneakers."

Kightley is a master of self-deprecating immigrant humour. "Part of that is a coping mechanism for shame at the way people looked at us or treated us or thought of us." Laugh at yourself before anyone else can. It resonates with New Zealanders, Kightley thinks. "Classic Fred Dagg, a hugely underrated influence on our comedy. He's saying really big things but it's what he doesn't say."

Example: Kightley arrived to emcee the Power List do looking, amid the suits, at once terribly shy and aggressively exotic in island shirt and lava lava. Once at the podium, he negotiated the cultural fault-line running through a room such as that with effortless self-assurance. Talking about reading the Listener as a child, he deadpanned, "Sometimes when my family had money we'd buy food as well."

He doesn't normally do the public-speaking circuit. "Because with every_ thing else, you've got characters and stories to hide behind. But when it's yourself they're looking at, you've got nothing. I've learnt to still the voice that tells me I'm terrified. It's still there. You just turn it down. Maybe a four instead of a 10."

Kightley's surprisingly effervescent and perky, really, considering he's been up since dawn doing his Breakfast stint on NiuFM. That's after driving for six hours to Tokoroa and back the night before to speak at a school prizegiving. Awww.

And, for all the increasingly high profile, he seems to have no trouble keeping his impressive sneakers planted firmly on the ground. Ask what he hoped for when he embarked on the wildly successful Sione's Wedding and he says, "That it wouldn't be stink."

But there's no false modesty. "I think that's fairly accurate," he says evenly, when I read him some of the nice things - "probably done more for healthy race relations in this country than a dozen acts of Parliament", etc - being said about him. "I've had quite a lot of growth in the last year. I've managed to shake off a lot of my issues and my insecurity. I'm just learning to embrace the things that happen. If people say nice things, that's cool. If they want to say bad things, that's cool too."

Insecurity? Issues? "Oh yeah. It just comes with growing up Samoan in New Zealand."

Fortunately he's always had his strategies to keep self-esteem afloat in sometimes hostile waters. "I always like to see myself on T-shirts, so every Christmas I used to make T-shirts of myself and give them to my friends. And at high school I used to walk around signing people's pieces of paper, saying this will be worth money one day; hang on to that."

He laughs at the sheer cheek of it. "Or was it a sense of destiny?" he jokes. In a way, his life has come full circle. He started out as something of a star, during his first four years living in Samoa as a treasured only child. "I'm pretty sure I was absolutely spoilt rotten. I had a glorious four years when I was the chosen, golden boy-child. I got to wear shoes when none of the other kids in the village did. I'm thankful for that glorious time. I can't even really remember it, but I know it was great."

Then his father died. "My Mum brought me here and gave me away." He was suddenly one of eight kids, living with his paternal aunt and uncle. "I went from being the only child to being the bottom child and that teaches you a whole new perspective. It teaches you to keep your mouth shut and just watch and listen and look." Not a bad thing, possibly, for a future writer. "Bloody good for a writer. And it's freaky how much you remember. It all comes out when you're sitting in front of a laptop. You're not even conscious of your own issues or whatever. It just comes out."

It was an environment unlikely to produce a prima donna. "I had that beaten out of me when I was growing up. There's nothing like a hiding now and again to shake you out of any preciousness you might have about yourself," he says cheerfully.

There's an Anthony Ellison cartoon on the wall at the rented bungalow Kightley shares with his cousin, hip-hop artist Scribe. It shows a dreary grey square with just a couple of spiky bits in one corner. "What's that funny bit that sticks out?" reads the caption. "Oscar Kightley."

Out back a splendid weed garden flourishes. Spent fireworks lie forlorn. Kightley's been letting them off a few at a time during the day because there's a baby next door.

In the tiny living-room there's a big television and rows of CDs, Bob Marley rubbing along beside The Great Bill Sevesi and Fresh Off Da Boat volume 7. On a top shelf, Kightley's laureate statuette jostles for space with Scribe's small forest of ARIA awards.

There's a poster on the wall, featuring Muhammad Ali in his beautiful prime and this definition: "Fighter: One who fights. One who makes their way through struggle. One who engages in battle."

Kightley may be cultivating an air of Zen-like serenity these days - "'Embrace' is my word for the year," he says, beaming. But ask him about finding himself, age four, alone and far from home - new country, new name, new language, new mum - and the information comes out in fragments: "Concrete. An overwhelming sense of concrete and grey. I remember I walked around quite a lot at school. On my own." He used to sit on the front step of the house in Te Atatu by a pink hibiscus tree because it reminded him of Samoa.

It breaks your heart. "It was hard for Mum, too. I think the only thing that made her able to do it was the thought, 'Maybe there is a better opportunity in New Zealand than he would have if he stayed.'" She never lost touch with him, however, when she returned to Samoa; and a few years later she was able to come to New Zealand to live close by.

If anything drives him, he says, it's his parents. All of them. He saw his auntie and uncle work several jobs. "My Ma [auntie] was always yelling at me in Samoan. I never used to listen at the time, but it was always about how you have to not let Palagis think you're dirty, how you have to represent yourself, have a good life."

There was school. "I had a good teacher at each school who saw beyond the brown skin and who didn't see a statistic. Miss Butterworth at primary, Mr Murphy at intermediate, Mr Taylor at Rutherford High ... teachers who said, 'Here's a bright kid. Let him write what he wants.'"

After school, there was a stint in journalism. He'd always loved English. "You could make stuff up," he muses. "That's not good when you're a journalist." His stifled creativity found an outlet in logging on as the editor and sending outrageous messages to the staff. Until he was made redundant.

Short stints in radio and television saw him land up in Christchurch, the unlikely birthplace of the Pacific Underground theatre group. "We tried to make serious stuff but it always came out funny." So the Naked Samoans was a chance to do what cracked them up. "Which was toilet humour. But it ended up being about the same issues we were doing before. You can't divide life up into genres."

In a way, being an outsider helped. They weren't locked, like Maori and Pakeha, into the bicultural two-step. "We were 'other' for a long time and that is quite liberating. You get freedom to just operate. People don't expect anything."

And there was plenty of company along the way, with fellow Nakeds Mario Gaoa, David Fane, Shimpal Lelisi ... "You wouldn't know Oscar Kightley if it wasn't for those guys."

He makes it sound easy. But there was rage, too. "Oh yeah. Heaps. I remember the first day I bought a car. I was so happy. And the police stopped me and thought I was a drug dealer because I was a brown guy in a big car driving through West Auckland. Shit like that always makes you angry, especially when it happens again and again." In the end he prepared a list and had it laminated: "Yes, my name is Oscar Kightley. Yes, I am the registered owner of this vehicle. No, I have not been drinking. No, I am not aware of any burglaries committed recently in the area ...," recites Kightley. "It completely takes the wind out of their sails."

That's awful and ... absolutely hilarious. "I was hugely angry lots of times, but there's a point where you realise it doesn't get you anywhere. We found the easiest way was to just have a laugh. It doesn't mean you don't get pissed off ... But you're able to see it for what it is, people being dicks as opposed to this big social ill."

Sure, he used to blame society, but now he's older and wiser. "This society's been good to me. We couldn't have done this anywhere else. We couldn't have done this in the Islands. We couldn't have done this in England. The Aussies would have probably been too racist to give us funding. It could only have happened here. That's why I'm such a fan of the place."

Kightley's fresh back from holiday when we meet. "Laughter and people dragging their Jandals," he reminisces fondly, "that's the sound of Samoa. It will always be where I was born, where I'm from, it will always be where I will go, but New Zealand is my home."

Samoa has also been his hideaway. These days, it's where he gets asked for his autograph. It was 17 years before he first went back. "It was quite painful because I didn't realise how disconnected I'd become with myself. It was a real turning point, going back when I was 21. When I came back, everything I wanted to do was about being Samoan, representing myself."

Even there he was something of an outsider. "There were times going back when Samoans wouldn't look at you as a Samoan. You're a tourist." But he's made his peace with that. "I'm making my peace a lot," he ruminates. "I hope that doesn't mean I'm going to die soon."

He's only just, he says, made peace with the critics. If the Naked Samoans have been able to get away with murder, it's at least partly because what they do is grounded in traditional Samoan theatre. "Fale Aitu, it's called. It means House of Ghosts." Travelling troupes of performers would pick up the local gossip and make plays that took the piss. "Running down everyone from the minister to the chief and people laughed. Their defence was, 'It wasn't us, it was the ghosts.' So they wouldn't get stoned to death."

Even so, Kightley's taken a few hits. "Man, I remember reading something in the Herald. It ruined me for a week." It was a piece about bro'Town and Sione's Wedding. "An academic came out and said I perpetuate myths of happy brown coconuts. I mean, what a stupid thing to say. This is from an island academic."

Maybe he hasn't quite made his peace on that one. But he's not short on support.

"It's laughable," says Justine Simei-Barton, another pioneer of local Pacific Island theatre and television, of that sort of criticism. "What Oscar's managed to do is put Pacific Island work on mainstream and that's something we all strive towards. Whether or not you like his work, you have to give him credit for that." And for the way he operates. "Oscar is really a smart cookie ... He knows quite a bit about the history of comedy within Samoan society, so he's able to write material the community can laugh at, even though it's very hard-hitting and some of it can be quite crude."

So going back to the traditional has given him freedom. "Absolutely. These guys are quite radical. But they're working from a strong foundation, a political foundation they understand and have been trained in."

Still, it's tricky being beholden to a whole community. It could paralyse you. "Totally," says Kightley. "I've had several periods of paralysis in my career based on what people think or say. But you just can't."

So blame the ghosts and create merry hell. "I look at the bigger picture ... For kids to be wearing bro'Town masks is amazing," he marvels. "I don't have any children, but when little Skytower does come along I'd like him to grow up in a country where he doesn't feel stink. Where he doesn't feel less than anyone or better than anyone. Where he sees himself reflected and feels part of the place. Because growing up I didn't feel part of the place."

And the big question: what will he do with the money? "I'll probably pay off my frickin' tax bill. I'd like to maybe buy some freedom and time and do fewer day jobs." There are more movies in the pipeline. "We're always in development!" he says valiantly.

Oscar Kightley: Arts Laureate; Power Lister; smart cookie; star. So does he feel ... powerful? "I do, I do," he says obligingly, with his best sad-clown smile, rolling up his copy of the Power List and brandishing it in self-mocking triumph. "I feel like I'm getting closer to the Koru Lounge of life. I still need a guest pass, but I feel like I'm getting closer."

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