ALEXANDER BISLEY speaks to Michelle Johansson and members of her Black Friars troupe ahead of bringing their acclaimed Othello Polynesia Shakespeare adaptation to Wellington this June.

“FOR 400 years producers and directors painted a white man black, so we will paint a brown man white,” Othello Polynesia director-producer Michelle Johansson chuckles mischievously. Her South Auckland troupe The Black Friars is bringing their acclaimed version to the capital with Othello as the only palagi character in a brown society. Loyalty, Vengeance, Envy and Love in contemporary Polynesia.

That man is Semu Filipo, most well-known for his Shortland Street role as Grunter. He says people should care about Othello because he shows our humanity. “How we miss or don’t see the faults we have in ourselves until it’s too late. For Othello, it was his failure to know himself.” His favourite line: “That we can call these delicate creatures ours, but not their appetites.” English and drama teacher Michelle introduced most of the Black Friars to William Shakespeare when they were students at Wesley College. “I haven’t looked back,” Vau Atonio, who portrays Iago, says. “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt,” the Black Friars have adopted Lucio’s Measure for Measure line.

Michelle, who plays Bianca, scheming against Othello with Iago, is almost bursting with enthusiasm for Othello Polynesia. “It’s a world first! The drums and dance will really get your blood pumping, it’s an all new take on a classic play with poignant and universal themes that are still just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. Sounds like blah blah blah, but it’s true I swear!”

She wants the audience to be entertained and moved by the incredible emotional and tragic journey of a great man brought to ruin. “We want the audience to feel that Shakespeare wrote for everybody. We want the audience to consider the implications of race – defining and marginalising, discriminating and destroying.”

Poet Sam Hunt notably said he’d fail his own poetry the way too many schools test it. I ask Michelle how should schools teach and test poetry like Shakespeare? “Wow, who am I to define that? [Laughs] That’s a million dollar question... I’m of the opinion that I can never get my lovely class of Polynesian students to Elizabethan England, but I can bring the bard to them. Make it relevant. Make it matter to them. Put it in their world and make them care enough to have an argument about it. Encourage discussion, debate, thought. The themes are timeless, when the students understand that, they’re eating out of the palm of your hand... As educators we have a duty to equip these kids with the tools and skills and attitudes that they need to be the absolute best they can be in the big, bad world.”

Michelle is disappointed with the media’s portrayal of South Auckland: “The media are more and more interested in the negative side of everything; they would rather shock their readers than give them a true picture of the world we live in. South Auckland is still a beautiful place. The escalation of violence lately is real and it needs to be dealt with. But for the media to focus only on this and not give any kudos to all of the wonderful people working so amazingly hard to make better lives for their people, their families, their aiga; well, that’s just wrong. It devalues what so many good people are trying to do.”

Vau, too. “But to only focus on these things in both private and public spheres is to disregard all of the beauty, passion and talent that come out of South Auckland. People are too quick to judge and to stereotype. When the media focuses only on the negative, they miss the whole point, and they misrepresent what we, as a community, are all about. Sure, there might be gangs – not all gangs are prone to acts of wanton violence – but there is a huge and prevailing sense of community and family that exists in South Auckland that you will not find anywhere else.”

Michelle isn’t fond of the Supercity. “It’s going to suck the big one. I’m not politically savvy enough to understand the finer points, but I can’t help having the feeling that we and our issues, that are specific to us, are going to get swallowed up and become comparatively inconsequential. This will be a real shame, losing that unique small town feeling that New Zealand still has, and that you can still feel somewhere in most neighbourhoods.”

Following on from the original rhyme-battle showdown The Frogs, the Black Friars 2009 schedule includes Big, Brown, Beautiful in August, a show in the workshopping process about teenagers and gangs, a musical, and some sonnet readings. “I have to say the world needs to watch out for a play called I Don’t Do Coconut by Pacific playwrights Eric Smith and Chetan Patel.”

Michelle promises Othello Polynesia will be electric. “Othello is our story. The play is the dramatisation of Othello’s own self-discovery and, as we see it, there is nothing more important than knowing who you are, and where you come from...Each Friar is on his or her own quest for identity and we see ourselves in this Pacific portrayal of a timeless tale of brotherhood betrayed, a tale of race and identity, and a tale of love.”