nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 27, 2008
Near the beginning of her impressively audacious one-woman performance Tongue-in-Paint, Moana Niumeitolu tells us a bit about her background. She was born in Tonga and moved with her large family first to Hawaii and then to Provo, Utah (her family, like many Tongans, are Mormons). At 16, she left the Church; at 18, she left home and arrived in New York City with $1.76 in her pocket. She wanted to become, she says, a poet, a painter, a dancer, and an actor (and I may have left something out of that list of ambitions).
Right away, I was hooked. Niumeitolu is an engaging performer and her charm and chutzpah draw us to her: I wanted to know how she got from being alone in the big city with less than two dollars to her name to being onstage at P.S. 122, clearly in command of a theatre audience and her destiny. I also wanted to know more about her Tongan culture, and how that has impacted her, and how it feels to be part of a group that few people know much about.
Unfortunately, that first monologue is the only one Niumeitolu performs as herself. The rest of Tongue-in-Paint puts her in various guises, some of which appear to be possibly autobiographical but just as many of which seem not to be. Almost all are Tongans coping with their status as "others" in New York City in diverse and often unexpected ways (one of the characters aligns herself with her Hispanic friends in the Bronx; a Tongan father explains how the family in The Godfather is just like his own).
Niumeitolu plays about 15 different people in this show, and her versatility and especially her gift for mimicry and creating character voices is commendable. But I kept hoping for Moana herself to come back and tell us her own story, unadorned and without artifice.
The most remarkable segment of the piece gives us our only other real glimpse at this artist: during a musical interlude (featuring the stylings of onstage DJ Oja, whose work throughout the show is sensational), Niumeitolu paints two abstract pictures right in front of our eyes in under five minutes. One of them I particularly admired; it revealed both her talents and her ideas in a way that none of the assumed characters ever did.
Logistically, the show's transitions—during which Niumeitolu removes and then adds clothing accessories to indicate the new character she's taking on—are slow and hurt the performance's pacing. Thematically, though there are tidbits about Tongan life tossed in here and there (often related to food), the unifying notion of what it means to be that rarity, a Tongan-American, isn't really illuminated here the way it ought to be.
Niumeitolu is a compelling performer; I hope she'll hone this piece and focus it so that it really does tell her singular and authentic story.