For four months of their last year of high school, 60 students from south Auckland, New Zealand, opted to spend the little free time they had between school, work, and family responsibilities doing something they’d never done before: developing and performing in a musical based on their own lives. South Auckland, or Southside, is home to a large Pasifika community and the subject of long-held negative stereotypes. Produced by the Black Friars Theatre Company in collaboration with its teenaged performers, Southside Rise was created to counter the prevalent perceptions of Southside without shying away from the harsh realities many of its young residents face, from providing and caring for their families to homelessness.
Michelle Johansson, the founder and Creative Director of the Black Friars and an Associate Director of Programme at Teach First NZ: Ako Mātātupu, is driven by the need for more of what she calls “polycultural leaders”* in South Auckland and an increased understanding of the Pasifika community’s many strengths. The Black Friars began developing Southside Rise by listening to the stories of local high schools students through a series of talanoa, a Pasifika tradition in which the act of storytelling is as important as the stories themselves. The talanoa were followed by additional workshops with students from nearly a dozen schools, including several Teach First NZ partner schools.
Michelle, Denyce Su'a—a Black Friars member who is also a Teach First NZ Fellow—a third co-writer, and a music director, wove the students’ stories and experiences into the script for Southside Rise. In collaboration with the other Black Friars and the students, they incorporated singing, dancing, music, and spoken word—all heritage literacies in Pasifika culture—into the production. The show also included a healthy dose of humor, which underscored both the characters’ and the performers’ capacity to thrive despite (or perhaps because of) their challenging circumstances.