When Leki Jackson-Bourke was growing up, he would watch his favourite TV show, Friends, every day. “I wanted to be Ross Geller,” he says, laughing. “I had an obsession with dinosaurs because he was a paleontologist.” Give or take 15 years and Leki is bound for the big screen — this time telling his own story.
The Tongan-Niuean-Samoan writes plays for Pasifika youth and his knockout theatre debut has seen him win, well, nearly all the big awards.
Last year Leki received the Creative New Zealand Emerging Pasifika Artist Award and the first Victoria University Emerging Pasifika Writer in Residence Award. This comes on the back of winning a 2017 Auckland Theatre Award for the sold out comedy and Niuean parody Meet the Fakas, which saw him named best newcomer.
Add to that the prestigious Creative New Zealand Todd New Writer’s Bursary Grant, which earned Leki $20,000 to work on his next play. He was the first Pasifika playwright to win the Todd Grant and became one of the youngest Pasifika playwrights published when his co-written play Inky Pinky Ponky was included in Talanoa: Four Pacific Plays. All this at just 26 years old.
Leki’s Victoria University residency will see him receive three months of mentoring in Wellington with award-winning playwright Victor Rodger, and $15,000 to finish his new play For the Likes. The award came as a surprise and Leki says the pressure is now on to do it justice.
“I write my plays to represent my community, so I don’t want to get it wrong and let down them and all the people who have supported me.” He hopes to publish the new play in a book of Pacific plays with two earlier works to make a resource for high schools. Leki says he wants to tell the stories of young Pasifika, given the lack of Pasifika plays available in schools. “Kids don’t even know what Pasifika theatre is. They love drama but don’t like doing Shakespeare. I want to give them an opportunity to utilise the performing arts. I was a troubled kid and was able to find myself in performance.”
Plays like Just Pring It! which captures the backstage drama of the ASB Polyfest, aim to be relatable. “I use their language in my writing to engage and sneak in deeper issues. I mask a lot of it through comedy to warm up the audience and then hit them with a bit of serious stuff,” he says.
In a run of highlights, Leki faced a low point when the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts went into liquidation in December 2017. As it was the biggest tertiary provider for Pacific people, the closure left its 1200 students bewildered at campuses around Auckland. Leki was about to leave with a Bachelor in Pacific Performing Arts and says it was traumatic. “It was a huge influence on my work and became my safe zone and support network. We fought really hard to save the school.”
Leki says it’s the most exciting time for Pasifika theatre in New Zealand. “It’s just grown rapidly. There was one month this year when 10 Pacific shows were on at the same time. That’s never happened before.”
His big dream is to transition from theatre to film, starting with his passion for dance. “I think of all those 90s dance movies and how influential they were for hip-hop. There’s never been one that promotes Pacific dance. I want to make that movie on the world stage.”