Flip The Script: Nora Vagi Brash, Which Way Big Man?

As a dramaturg and a PhD student in theater, scripts occupy 75% of my reading, both for class and in my personal life. There are actually theater students out there who abhor reading scripts and prefer monographs and theoretical writings on theatre, and vice versa, but I like it both ways. Theory, criticism, and history can get dry or jargon-y after awhile, and getting lost in a good play is a quick and easy way to mix pleasure reading with a performance in your mind’s eye. It also helps that rare is the play that goes beyond one hundred pages, so if you claim that you don’t have the interest, time, or patience to read a novel for fun, I suggest plays.

For a recent project (okay, one that was due today that I just sent to my professor right now), I chose to look at a play I’d heard of from the island nation of Papua New Guinea. After I had a copy of the play sent to me all the way from Penn State, I found several other plays that fit the category in the library, including one that was in three different booksSo, I switched up my topic, and after reading Which Way, Big Man? I’ve become the newest fan of playwright/actress Nora-Vagi Brash.

I’ve written several book reviews, and I’ve wanted to transition into writing reviews of some of my favorite scripts, old and new, so here’s a new segment I’ve just come up with entitled Flip The Script. Lame, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything better. Remember, my mind is the same one that came up with Masterpiece YouTube and wrote a whole post about puns, so there you go. I’ll include the basics (playwright, year, character, setting, context, etc.), aim to limit my word count on plot description, and include some pictures and commentary. So, without further ado, I present the first episode of Flip The Script right…now.

The Basics

Which Way, Big Man? was written in 1976 by Nora-Vagi Brash, and premiered in Papua New Guinea that year.

Characters (In Order of Appearance)

  • Gou Haia – Public servant and the newly-appointed Director of National Identity.
  • Sinob Haia – His wife
  • Peta – Their servant
  • Hegame – Gou’s cousin
  • Private Secretary – Sinob’s social secretary
  • Papa – Gou’s father
  • Marian – Gou’s typist
  • James – Gou’s clerk
  • Chuck Braggin-Crowe – Businessman, owner of perfume corporation
  • Vi Braggin-Crowe – His wife
  • Saga – A local university student
  • Professor Noual – A linguist
  • Mrs. Ura Kava – A news reporter
  • Dr. Ilai Kamap – An academic
  • News Announcer – News announcer (offstage/recorded)
  • Also, a character named Tau, a co-worker of Marian and James, is mentioned and spoken to, but does not appear in the cast list nor say any lines.

Setting/Plot

1976, the Haia home in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gou has been promoted to Director of National Identity in the newly independent Papua New Guinea, and his wife Sinob plans a cocktail party in his honor. Gou’s father comes from the village to surprise him, much to Sinob’s behest. At the party, Sinob tries to impress her upper-class, white friends while insulting/ appropriating Papua New Guinea’s culture, language, and traditions. Upon seeing her father-in-law along with Marian, James, and Saga smoking and chewing buai, a tobacco-like substance, Sinob lashes out, only to be called out as neo-colonial for exploiting public funds and wearing a dress she had “specially made,” which is a knock-off. Sinob turns her anger towards Marian, calling her a pamuk (adulterer) for dancing with Gou earlier at the party, before slapping Marian in the face, who does the same to her. Gou steps in and she calls him an adulterer to his face and storms off, ending the party and leaving only Gou and his father on stage to reflect on the situation, especially in light of Gou’s new position.

My Thoughts

A great and simple take on colonialism through a postcolonial lens. Brash makes everything pretty clear-cut. It’s the perfect text for a discussion on postcolonialism and I can’t wait to read more from her.

Historical Background

As a nation who gained independence in the latter part of the twentieth century, Papua New Guinea entered a new world, and along with it, a new worldview. The colonizer-colonized relationship dynamic is one that invokes a clear line between who is in power, and who is not. Under colonial rule, there had been less of an upwardly mobile option for native Papua New Guineans. Even with the advent of higher education, the presence of the colonists undoubtedly affected and most likely limited the amount of autonomy the locals could exert over themselves. The House of Assembly established by the people in the 1960s had enhanced the voices of the island’s colonized residents, yet still the conductor’s baton was still held in the hands of the Australian administration. As the 1970s brought the nation ever closer to independence, the opportunities for social climbing increased as more local representation was needed in order to create an efficient and effective transitional government to bridge the gap between colonial status and independence. With independence came a greater emphasis on social class, and the creation of a new Papua New Guinean elite composed of the literate and the educated colonized people using neocolonialism to perpetuate the cycle of exclusion.

Major Themes 

1. Class. Sinob and Gou, of the newly rich, attempting to impersonate their colonizers, and putting down those who are less educated.

  • Sinob and Gou’s servant, Peta, and although they pay for his education, still require him to call them his “master.”
  • Sinob calls Gou’s father low-class, since he has “betel stained teeth” and doesn’t speak English. She also derides her husband for letting him borrow his clean white shirt, since he will only “get it dirty.”
  • Sinob requests that crystal glasses be ordered for the white guests, and plastic cups for the others.
  • Sinob requests hot and cold Western-style appetizers, calling betel nuts “low-class.”
  • At the party, Sinob calls Marian “just a typist” and orders that she refer to her as Mrs. Gou Haia from now on (which she later gossips about with Vi Braggin-Crowe).

2. Cultural appropriation. This is the practice of picking and choosing elements of culture to share, while branding others as irrelevant or less-than.

  • When Papa suggests a singsing or a traditional party with betel nuts and a pig-roast, Gou tells him that a cocktail party is the thing to do now.
  • Sinob insulting the flower that Papa wears in his hair to the party.
  • At the party, while Sinob slams Tok Pisin and other elements of PNG culture and traditions, Sinob wears a dress made of local fabric and cut in a local style, appropriating the style of dress made by islanders and sold in the markets.

3. Language barriers. Sinob and Gou Haia attempt to navigate two interstitial zones: one of formerly low-class islanders who have risen to a higher social class, and another of English, the language of colonialism and the local Tok Pisin language.

  • In the first scene, they speak only in English, but are clearly able to understand Tok Pisin as Sinob barks orders in English at Peta, the servant, who responds in Tok Pisin.
  • In Scene V, upon the arrival of Gou’s father, we see the extent of the lapse in communication between Gou and his father.

GOU: Father! How are you? We – er – weren’t expecting you.

PAPA: Eh! Pikinini bilong mi! Yu tok Inglis. Na mi traim tok olosem. (Ah, my son, you speak English. I’ll try too.) Your house here, is too far up hill and road. My bones tired from walk. Now I find you is good.

GOU: Father, I have been promoted. I’m to be the director of the Department of National Identity. Do you understand?

PAPA: Pikinini, yu tok wanem long dispel? Mi no save. Yu tok Inglis, na mi no kisim as long tok bilong yu. (Son, what are you talking about? I don’t understand. When you speak English I can’t get to the bottom of what you say.)

GOU: It means I’m to be the boss of a big office. The number one boss.

PAPA: Number one, eh?

GOU: Yes. Tonight, Sinob and I are having a party to celebrate (Brash 154-155).

  • In this brief exchange, we  how Gou’s status has affected his relationship with both his father and his native language. Gou greets his father in English, who responds in Tok Pisin before attempting to keep the conversation going in English. Gou’s choice to respond in English rather than in Tok Pisin (which we know he understands, although we have not yet heard him speak) and his word choice increases the distance between the two. Gou’s father, whose confidence and knowledge in English do not match his son’s, switches back to Tok Pisin. Despite the fact that Papa says “when you speak English I can’t get to the bottom of what you say,” Gou continues in English, refusing to switch to Tok Pisin. On top of the obvious master-servant relationship between the couple and Peta, now we see the insinuation of the English-speaking son putting his native father – both his actual Papa and his first language, the language of his fatherland – beneath him.
  • Scene IV. Dr. Ilai Kamap, the academic, brings up the subject of national language. Despite her position as the wife of the man who is now charge of the task force to discover national identity, Sinob is dismissive of the two dominant non-English languages of Motu and Tok Pisin, calling the latter Pidgin, a nomenclature originated and utilized by the English. She calls them languages of the “village people” and that everyone should speak English, citing the current English-based educational curriculum and that it would “cost a lot more to rewrite the texts (Brash 160).” Professor Noual, the linguist, takes umbrage to the idea, but is ignored by Sinob, who has already moved on to a conversation with Ura Kava about her new dress. As Sinob leaves, Dr. Kamap suggests the creation of a language based on the “seven-hundred-plus languages here…which would include elements from each basic dialectal area,” to which Professor Noual points out the fact that this language already exists and is a national language: Tok Pisin.
  • After his wife storms off and the guests take their leave, only Gou and Papa are left on stage. As soon as they are alone, they have a conversation exclusively in Tok Pisin. According to the footnoted translation, Papa excuses himself to go stay with a cousin, but Gou apologizes to his father for his wife’s display and the toll that urban life has taken on him. Papa responds with understanding, but instead of solely blaming city life, also points out to his son how Sinob bosses him around. He then invites Gou back to the village to join himself and Gou’s mother for Christmas, and that they will make a big feast. Gou insists to his father that he and his mother should not spend money on feeding him, to which his father says that he will be ashamed among the village if Gou will not come home for Christmas. As it is late, Gou offers his father the bed in the guest room, but he refuses, preferring to sleep on the hard living room floor. He does so, leading to the closing image of Gou putting a pillow under his father’s sleeping head to elevate it off the floor, and contemplating his new position with the play’s closing line, “[a]nd so…here I am, your son…the director of National Identity.” It is clear here that Gou is caught in the middle, not only between English and Tok Pisin, but between the comfortable bed of the present and his father, the past, happily sleeping on the floor. In this way, Brash leads her audience with the provocative question of reconciling with identity.
  • Character names: The name of protagonist Gou Haia is a homophone of the English phrase “go higher,” referring to his political ambition as well as his rise in socioeconomic class. His wife is an aptly-named snob, both in her name, Sinob, and in her nature. The haughty white businessman and his wife whom Sinob is desperately trying to impress are named Chuck and Vi Braggin-Crowe, alluding to both Sinob’s and their own tendency to “brag and crow” about their position in society and their opinions of the lower class. A case can even be made for Dr. Ilai Kamap, the academic who suggests the creation of a new language for the new nation, as his surname is a hint to the phrase “come up,” indicating that he is also among the newly-risen members of society.

I have more to say but I’ll stop and publish here because I’ve basically just recreated like half my paper, but stay tuned for more on this play. This entry will probably be edited a few times.

Also, anhyeunasayo to my first visitor from South Korea, and to my 10000th visitor (at least according to my Revolver Map), from Kanata, Ontario, Canada. Not bad, eh?

Works Cited

Beier, Ulli, ed. Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: U of Queensland P, 1980.

Brash, Nora-Vagi. Which Way, Big Man? in Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea, ed. Ulli Beier. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: U of Queensland P, 1980.

James, Adeola, ed. PNG Women Writers: An Anthology. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Addison Wesley Longman Australia, 1998.

Waiko, John Dademo. A Short History of Papua New Guinea. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Oxford UP Australia, 1993.

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8 thoughts on “Flip The Script: Nora Vagi Brash, Which Way Big Man?

    • Hey there! You can find this play in several anthologies, such as PNG Women Writers by Adeola James or Voices of Independence by Ulli Beier. Check your library or online retailors. Hope you liked reading this!

  1. Good evening. I would like a copy of a book titled “Which way big man” by Nora Vagi Brash for my son who is doing his IB Theatre. This request is rather urgent. He is doing his year 12 and his assignment is due on the 24th April. If you could let me know how I can get this book I would very much appreciate it. I can be contacted through my email address at agneseri@yahoo.com or call Mr. Tarcy Eri on 727 27603.

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