PUBLISHED: 5:15 PM on Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Tongan legend comes alive at Auke Bay school

Photo by Christina Holmgren
  Aaron and Paul Tupou practicing one of the Tongan dances in the Auke Bay gym last week.
When Auke Bay music teacher Anne Boochever wanted to stage a musical based on a Tongan legend, she had a hard time finding either a legend or any traditional music in writing.

"I finally found some sources online, but by then I already kind of had it," she said.

"It" was the Legend of Tongaloa, told to Boochever by the Tupous, a Tongan family with children who are students at the Auke Bay school.

"I took a page of notes and made it into a play," Boochever said.

As for the songs, they were written down from a recorded visit to the school by a group of Tongan Juneauites. So from the beginning, "The Legend of Tongaloa" has been a community project, much in line with Tongan tradition, which places great value on family and community. In Juneau, there are about 100 people from Tonga.

"Tongan songs are famous for their tremendous harmonies," said Boochever. "We didn't get to the harmony level though," she laughed. "It was pretty labor intensive as it is."

The fifth-grade students participating in the play have learned to sing in Tongan, in addition to learning their lines and their stage movements. Though Boochever uses a lot of foreign songs in her regular music classes, learning a whole play in another language is foreign to students. "Some are excited by it, and some turned off, but they eventually come around and are real excited and proud that they can sing in another language."

Boochever's annual musical at the Auke Bay school usually draws on an ethnic heritage represented at the school or in the community, but not always a predominant minority culture. Earlier years, she has staged musicals with Mexican-Aztec, Brazilian and Filipino themes and music.

"I've done a lot of work in ethnomusicology," she said, "and I have a big interest in different cultures and music."

Students have been in rehearsals for a total of about eight weeks -Ebut they started auditioning in January. The Auke Bay school works with "focus blocks" which means Boochever sees the students for three weeks, and then doesn't see them again for a long time.

"With an adult play," she said, "you would have rehearsals every night for several hours -Ebut that doesn't work with kids."

Instead, the cast has rehearsed during regular music classes, and the actors have had hour-long rehearsals after school three days a week.

The cast, Boochever said, learns many different things from participating.

"One is teamwork; It's just like a sport, really. I say all the time that the play is only as good as its weakest link - and that means every single person has to give their all. There can't be any slackers."

To achieve maximum potential, students also need to be really supportive of each other and not tease or put each other down, she said, "or else nobody would take the risk of getting up in front of their peers."

That also goes along with the Tribes program that the Auke Bay school (and most elementary school in the district) uses as guideline for student interaction.

Another thing students learn from the experience is "the fact that with hard work you can achieve something really big - more than what just one person can do; it's a whole synergistic effect if everybody work hard on something," Boochever said.

"In the beginning, most of these kids have never had an experience like this," she said. "In the beginning, they are self-conscious; they get up there and mumble their lines; they're shy - and this does wonders for their self-esteem and confidence."

"Not to mention celebrating the diversity in our world and learning to appreciate another culture, not only for the similarities with their own but also for the differences."

And the cast has clearly been influenced by the work, she said, as she's overheard them use Tongan terms outside of rehearsals.

"It's like they have their own in-language," Boochever laughed.

The Legend of Tongaloa will be played for the public Wednesday and Thursday, April 20 and 21, at 6:30 pm at the Auke Bay School gym. Suggested donation is $4.