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Theater Review: Bunga’s Paradise

Bunga’s Paradise is a short performance piece by Tongan dancer ‘Isope ‘Akau’ola which is billed as his ode to the migrant dream. 

As the audience enters the Basement Theatre, ‘Akau’ola is already moving on stage. Dressed in blue overalls, he jogs then dances, then jobs again in a continual loop. We hear an almost robotic voice counting up levels of performance of the type you might get in a structured fitness drill. Once we are all seated, the movement continues, but it changes to him touching white lines on the floor while counting in Tongan. 

He pauses, drinks some water, and suddenly transforms into a kid in school – boastful, challenging, telling jokes. It’s as though the young boy is trying to state who he is and why he belongs in a bigger culture that isn’t always welcoming.  He challenges the audience to play games with him – tiggy, bullrush, and even a ‘your mama’ battle. 

The scene changes. He talks about his mum, and the better life Aotearoa promised. He dances again and the robotic counting returns. The dance this time is repetitive and seems to be an analogy of how the ‘better life’ turned into daily grind, perhaps in a factory. The endless cycle of wake, dress, work, sleep, repeat. 

Perhaps the most challenging and politically charged scene was a stylised game show called ‘Bunga’s Paradise’ in which audience members were asked a series of questions, and if you could answer yes to them, you took a sip of water from supplied bottles. Some of those questions included ‘Do people struggle to pronounce your name?’ and ‘Have you had to learn to love your skin colour?’.  Although it was all metaphorical, the object was clear, and it was a potent yet simple reminder of the realities of inequality. 

The final scene involved Akau’ola delivering a traditional Tongan song and dance. It was a graceful and beautiful moment made even more special by many in the audience singing along with it. 

Bunga’s Paradise is an intriguing show that is full of heart and elegance and yet at the same time has an innocence to it. It feel as though in this piece of work ‘Akau’ola is experimenting with the art form and dipping his toe into artistic activism as he himself finds his own voice and path.


26 – 30 September 2023

Basement Theatre

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