Beyond Southside Rise

Referred to as a movement for change the 200-strong cast and crew of Southside Rise 2018 Heads Held High want for the show to not just make a statement. The ultimate goal is for positive far-reaching societal effects on south Auckland. LAUMATA LAUANO talks to the minds behind Heads Held High to gain an insight into an ever-growing production, village and war cry.



Produced by the well-known The Black Friars theatre company, Southside Rise 2018: Heads Held High tells the stories of Pasifika students who are called to be leaders within their schools, families, churches, sports teams and the wider community.


The production also sees the students receive keen mentorship while providing a platform for them to own their own narratives.


Nine Wayfinders (school leaders) from nine different south Auckland schools lead 80 young warriors and 20 alumni from the year before, as they come together to re-story south Auckland.


Back for the second-year Southside Rise 2018: Heads Held High, however, isn’t just a continuation of Southside Rise 2017. It builds upon and introduces new storylines.


In the words of one of the Wayfinders and cast, Paulina Tapuai-Soti, last year the production was about the rising of south Auckland.


“This year’s Heads Held High shows we’ve already raised, but we’re now maintaining that rise.


“This year’s about showing the growth from last year and giving people more than a taste of our identity as a whole.”


The production addresses an array of issues, ranging from sexuality (which was not discussed last year), the image of south Auckland as portrayed in the media, stereotypes, gentrification, mental wellbeing and the real lives that exist beyond the negative statistics.


“Our goal is to show what happens in our lives on a daily basis,” says cast-member Elekana Tupou. “We’re trying to share it with people who don’t understand where we’re coming from.”


The hope is that people will walk away knowing what Southside can bring, as told by those who live in the area, as a way to heal the area.


Black Friars creative director Michelle Johansson says it’s important for these students to be able to tell their own stories, not just from the perspective of taking ownership of their own narrative but as an avenue for growth and education.


“On stage here, this song, this dance, and this movement … this is literacy, this is research, this is who we are.


“We teach our kids that they’ve got to be able to walk in two worlds … they’ve gotta be able to be a young Pacific warrior, but they’ve also gotta work it in the Pakeha world, so that they can succeed in that world, too, because we want holistic leaders who are going to go out and change the world.”


It’s why students are encouraged to branch out and take education seriously as a way of being able to change and write their own narratives.


The three Black Friars directors Denyce Su’a, who also wrote the majority of the script, Lau’ie Tofa and Sosaia Folau, also agree students should be able to tell their own stories.



“For too long South Auckland has been defined by what people outside of south Auckland think about it, or us, from what they see and are told by the media,” says Denyce.


“Media filters that ‘information’ down to the masses and they talk amongst each other and this toxic conversation starts happening around South Auckland.”


“But more than that is how that conversation affects perceptions of people of South Auckland, who are predominantly Pasifika and Maori, which can then affect everyone else outside of south Auckland who belong to those groups.”


Denyce explains that this project is about “us putting our hand up and saying okay, that’s enough now, time to stop doing that,” and to now restory the story that has been told.


Telling their own stories allows the students to shed labels such as violent thugs, as the impoverished, unpolished and uncouth.


Because as Michelle points out, “this is life and death for young brown people in the system”.


“We figure in all ‘in need of’ statistics, in prisons, we show in our education system as failures, and in our health system.


“We die faster, there’s more suicide and unless we change the system, it’s not going to be any better for our young ones.”


The change can’t happen without a little help, or at least the spark- which came last year with Southside Rise and is now being fanned by Heads Held High.


“Southside Rise is taking that responsibility of helping these kids,” says music director Siosaia.


“We set that platform up for these kids to stand on, so that they can set the platform for future generations to stand on.”


In a year the production has grown, and the hope is that it continues to do so year by year.


Denyce welcomes the idea of continued growth; despite being a small team working with a large number of students, the ever-growing numbers are welcomed.


“We’ll never say ‘we’re too big, let’s scale down’,” she laughs.


“There’s strength in numbers, come be a part of it. Next year I want every low-decile south Auckland school on the project,” says Michelle.


“Because we’re stronger together, we know we’re stronger together, and we have more in common than we do not.”


And this notion goes beyond the production, beyond the call to unite and uplift now, to create real change.


“I hope we’ve lit the fire and fanned the flames a bit in terms of these kids and the powerful role that they have in changing the world,” says Denyce.


“I, for one, hope that the change actually continues to come,” says Sosaia.


There have already been changes. The nature with which the schools have come together is a start. Before now, these nine schools only ever came into contact on in competitions such as Polyfest, or sporting events which pit schools up against each other.


However while friendly competition is no issue, Southside Rise sees rival schools come together to tell their own stories on their own terms, together as one.


The endgame is that these students create a ripple effect that moves far beyond Southside Rise to leave long lasting positive effects for generations to come.