“It’s finally my turn” says Princess AKA Gabriel Halatoa, gently brushing her chest with an elegance that presents itself to be a distinction of her as a writer/ director/performer. We’ve just finished our interview and she’s going back to rehearsal with COVEN, her collective. It’s the second to last Sunday before opening night and here, mid-winter at sunset tucked away at Kete Aronui in Onehunga, I am invited into their space and privileged to witness a snippet of Princess’ self-written, debut theatre production, Housekeeping; a seductively bougie, raw and touching reflection of being brown, divine feminine and a member of the LGBTQIA community in Auckland City in the 90s. She says: “This has been meaning to happen for so long because I’m a child of the hotels – I was raised in the hotels, so this is the development of my first solo performance called ‘Purple Trees’ which is about my life as a hotel child and my mum raising me in the hotel and bringing me in.”
Housekeeping is Halatoa’s first attempt at a theatre show and a once in a lifetime audience experience set in the five star hotel scene in which Princess grew up. It’s beautiful in its rawness and dark in it’s truth – but one which couldn’t really be told by anyone else. From primary school years Princess remembers waking up at 4am on cold South Auckland mornings and travelling into Aucland’s CBD with her mother – who is still remembered and respected as someone who stood up for her staff and made sure her workplace was a fair one.
What Princess has done, is what COVEN founding member and ‘house father’ Cypris Afakasi describes as, ‘kind of a weird flex’ because Princess finessed her script as if holding up a mirror to her reality; she let its reflection fall on her house sisters and now here they are, back at their Basement Theatre residency, sprinkling their truly magical powers onto the stage. It’s their energy you won’t want to miss out on. Housekeeping is for anyone who already knows about the magic of COVEN and for anyone still wondering what the fuck mercury in retrogade even means, this is for you too.
Although you have done other works together this one in particular is a celebration of your bond?
C: Definitely..it’s kind of like in a weird way, a little bit of a flex.
There goes the title!
C: Princess did this thing where all the characters that are real people, she noted them to sisters in C O V E N who she felt were energetically similar and so just to watch it all unfold. They’re not always following their lines but their able to bring out parts of the character that are otherwise… the lines wouldn’t allow for. It’s really beautiful to see that happen and it reflects these real people as well as them which is something I haven’t been able to sit down and see before. I really appreciate that part.
Describe that flex, the feeling of writing your reality into a fictional work.
C: It’s a bit like when you’re going down the steps and it’s a bit creaky and you’re like I don’t want to step on any toes…. I don’t want to step on grounds that are shaky, I really want to respect these characters all of these feelings but in essence we have had to push it forward anyway and ask the questions after just to make sure we’re not making any of these characters too unreal.
What’s it been like working with your director Cas?
C: Working with Cas has been amazing I haven’t worked with her in the director’s seat before and it’s a total change like I’m loving all this big dick energy it’s lovely to have a manawahine at the forefront punching this narrative forward like a tautoko. Because she sees the world differently – from a point where the characters wouldn’t be able to see and when you put the cast in there she’s able to be like that’s unreal…She’s really good at snapping out those things. She knows and she really sees and I feel, in that sense of nowness, everyone’s got that.
Hi my name is Cas and I am co-directing Housekeeping. I’m a freelance artist and I have a full time 9-5 – I also manage a retail store so, yeah
So this is your side, side love.
C: This basically my love, this is my passion. I love this. It’s my first time directing so usually I’m on stage but I love to write and I also love to be behind the scenes on shows as well.
Whats your fav part of the story?
C: My favourite part of the story is just seeing them on stage as sisters and I think that’s like a big theme behind this is sisterhood so everyone can relate to just having people like that family outside of your family being there for you and I think that’s what’s beautiful to see when they’re all on stage together is that naturally they have a way of coming together and showing that sisterhood – that’s probably my favorite part I don’t have a favourite section or anything but besides the dance scenes the dance scenes are really bomb.
Next week is the opening hey, what do you hope audiences will take away from this work?
C: The biggest thing I want audiences to take away is that I think just being there, being kind and being there for everyone, I think that’s a big message more now than ever, especially what’s going on in the world we are not just living our lives for ourselves but we all have a bigger purpose on this earth and that’s definitely to be a community and be together and be there for each other but yeah that’s a message I would love for everyone to walk away with.
From watching the rehearsal there’s a lot of raw, brown humor in the work obviously the contrast is that you’re in a bougie hotel which I love! Can we talk about being a brown person coming up in a bougie world like that?
P: Girl, all the secrets! Like if there’s any place for a brown person to move and not be seen and revel in all the secrets and all the brokenness of society and the white-hetero norms like the shiftiness of it – it’s definitely in Housekeeping like there’s no better place to have a proper eye into actual issues and shit
So you were around that from age five or six until adulthood?
P: Yeah, half my life and then I went off on my own, broke away from Housekeeping.
What did you do after when it was your time to leave your mum?
P: Mum kind of stopped working there because she had two younger kids and kind of like became a stay at home mum but before she did that she was hiring my friends which is Sandy in there, into Housekeeping, and so hearing more about sisters and their stories in housekeeping is still ongoing for me because mum’s still blessing my life and my sisters in housekeeping so yeah.
When your mahi offsets other people, that’s quite a victory story.
Has she seen this work, what does she say?
P: She’s very proud, because the stories actually gone through some changes one of my friends dropped out so she was playing mum – she was a very important character but she pulled out and so I had to change the whole story around so now it’s just a LGBTQI-strong story and I’ve pulled me and mum’s story out which is like a very heartbreaking for me because that was one of the narratives that the whole show was based on and so this is new territory for me, finding a way to be able to authentically showcase these stories and not pull back on the authenticity.
I mean it’s such a unique upbringing, what’s your favourite part about having that perspective?
P: I guess maybe understanding where I stand. [The hotel world] …It’s so structured and so hierarchy and just understanding that these people [there’s a way in which] they think I should be, [mean time I’m thinking] ‘But you’re all shady and you’re all fake ass and so I feel like I’m above you’…So there’s nothing they can tell me to make me feel any less than I am and that’s from mum – I got that from mum, being able to see that.
Hold your head up?
P: Yeah like I’m better than that shit it’s all fake.
So you grew up going to the school from the hotel and you had breakfast and dinner …so what room service?
Girl, tell me about room service!
Haha that’s what I want to know …
P: Well ok, so mum because she’s the queen of the hotel I’d be able to get that, I’d have to come in at four in the morning, stay in a room have my cartoons turned on have like Weetbix sent to the room and toast and stuff because all her friends were the community which is like the LGBT community, they’re all porters and valets and pool cleaners and housekeepers and they’re all just coming up to the room like ‘Gabby do you need anything else’ and ‘here, I found some chocolates in the rooms’ and here, ‘this is for the bed in 302 but you can have it, here’.
And you said that was at the Pullman?
P: Yeah, pretty much just, all around…The different food and beverage staff, the housekeeping staff, they’d all just gel with each other. Especially the sisters and housekeeping would all be drawn to mum and that because she’s quite for the people kind of person.
This work will be a huge thing for community, seeing your lives retold on the Basement Theatre stage?
P: Yeah, it’s generational like I’m inviting all of mum’s housekeeping friends and they’re going to be seeing a younger generation and their take on them so I just wanna do it well, I wanna do it good.
How long have you been in COVEN?
P: I am one of the founders, Mistress and Fang and myself founded it in 2015
Cause you guys as well, I just wanna get it right, was it FAF SWAG first and then COVEN?
P: FAF Swag were an established collective for awhile and then COVEN formed later, same sisterhood but different collectives yip.
COVEN has that magic element too hey?
P: We are all practicing witches and a lot of our practice comes from cultural activation and fusing with our vogue and witchcraft so we do a lot of ritualistic things. Certain things I can’t talk about, but before we get into shows we have our ritualistic things we all gather with the full moon and we really charge and channel from our ancestral paths, we channel our islands and our bloodlines…Mistress is probably the best person to talk to because she leads us all in our spiritual journeys and stuff like that.
The energy between you guys – there’s a realness I recognise.
P: Because we’ve all trained and been a part of the Vogue scene me and Fang’s bodies are quite in-sync and so we’re the Legendary scene here, that’s the first generation Vogue scene.
You guys have carved something out for people that didn’t exist before?
P: Yeah, absolutely.
How does that feel?
P: I feel like our people is where it’s born. We’re not the only ones doing it, I feel like there’s this rise in art and creativity and expression and voicing happening. I feel so grateful to be a part of that wave right now – it’s happening all at once, we’re just a small part but we’re doing our part.
I mean there was a time not that long ago where brown content was actually hard to find, like not even that long ago…
P: Like less than 10 years .
And it’s not just a brown story it’s uniquely like you’re not going to be able to find it anywhere else, kind of story.
P: This will be Coven’s first attempt at an authentic theatre show – our last one was quite experimental and borderline edgy whereas this is quite traditional theater, experimental, performance.
Who are your writing influences?
P: Victor Rodgers definitely if it was New Zealand writers – I really admire his storytelling, (Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, Club Paradiso, Girl Around The Corner), Rebecca Sugar – Steven Universe, I love me some anime shit.
How has humor played a role in your life because Housekeeping is hilarious too!
P: I feel …humour comes from trauma… and so I feel like humour is what has made my life long friendships with each of the cast members individually. Everyone that’s involved in there I’ve asked like ‘Hey sissy, would you live to be apart of this’? And they’ve all been like: ‘Bitch. Yes’, so humour is definitely one of the things that has been a staple in each of my friendships with these girls.
COVEN are a collective from South Auckland specialising in Vogue culture and performance art. Their roots as performers are in the NZ underground Vogue Ball scene, expanding out into performance art through activating rituals and ceremonies in galleries, book launches and academic symposiums. Some of COVEN’s most recent achievements include performing on the stage of TED Talks, appearing in Vice’s Underground Vogue Scene documentary, and being part of the award-winning Fafswag Interactive Documentary. COVEN’s members are Moe “Mistress” Laga, Jacob “Duchess” Tamata, Cypris “Fang” Afakasi, Gabriel “Princess” Halatoa, Logan “Honey” Collis, Sandy “Empress” Vukalokalo. And introducing Spencer Papali’i and Tekeepa Aria friends of COVEN
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